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COVID-19: do I need to wash my shopping and groceries?

We all know we need to wash our hands more often to protect ourselves from coronavirus, as well as regularly cleaning our homes to kill germs. But do the same rules apply to groceries and shopping?

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With the latest government advice being to continue staying at home and social distancing as much as possible, it's quite right you're wondering about how best to protect yourself from germs. Professor Sally Bloomfield, chair of the scientific advisory board of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, and James Milnes, managing director at sanitiser brand Zoono, explain.

Squeaky clean

Though there is only a small risk of the virus being brought into your home on groceries, it's still a good idea to wash them, Bloomfield says.

"Because the items you pick off the shelves in the supermarket will have been touched by other people, there is a chance (albeit small) that the packaging may have become contaminated via their hands," she says.

"When I arrive home, I put 'stocking up' items aside, somewhere safe, in quarantine for two days. For fresh foods, which I need immediately, I rub and rinse each item under running water to get rid of any residual virus off the surface and then leave it all to dry. It takes about 5 mins - and I now do it as a habit.

"Washing your shopping is not a question of whether it is 'necessary'. It's about minimising risk - and if someone in the home is at increased risk of infection this becomes more important."

Milne adds that germs can live on most surfaces, including food tins, fresh produce and packaging.

"It's therefore important to wash everything as soon as you get home. This includes your hands, as germs are spread as we pick up items from around the shop, touch the shopping trolley or basket, unload our shopping onto the carousel and pack it into carrier bags," he says.

"Many supermarkets have introduced a 'no touch' policy to encourage shoppers to only touch food they intend to buy, but still this doesn't totally prevent germs spreading. Wipe down your food shopping with a chemical-free antiviral product when you get home, before you put food and produce away in the fridge or kitchen cupboards."

And what about items which arrive in the post? According to Bloomfield there's much less risk of transmission as it's handled by far fewer people.A study looking at survival time of coronavirus on various surfaces showed that the virus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, as opposed to three days on hard surfaces such as metal, plastic and glass. So to be on the safe side, quarantine parcels for 24 hours and ensure that you wash your hands immediately after handling the post to help prevent spread.

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To chemical or not to chemical?

As concerns about the virus grow it's tempting to use harsh chemicals to clean surfaces in order to kill bugs. But remember, you still have to eat your food.

"Don't use alcohol-based wipes or cleaning products with harsh chemicals on food," Milne advises. "Instead, opt for an antiviral product that uses harmless chemicals." Remember that products labelled as antibacterial will only be effective against coronavirus if they also say they kill viruses.

"Use disposable wipes rather than dishcloths, as germs can live in reusable cloths. If you only have dishcloths or reusable cloths available, wash them on a hot wash (60°C) after each use to kill germs. Wash your hands before and after wiping down or washing your groceries."

Target practice

Ultimately, everyone needs to be practising good hygiene in order for a virus, such as coronavirus, to be effectively controlled.

A new study from the Global Hygiene Council calls for better promotion of everyday hygiene. It argues that this plays a pivotal role in tackling antibiotic resistance and protecting the number of people at increased risk of infection - for example, the vulnerable who are currently shielding to protect against COVID-19.

Bloomfield, who worked on the paper, says this is now highly relevant in preventing the spread of coronavirus.

In the event of an epidemic or global pandemic, hygiene would be key to mitigating spread before other measures such as vaccines can be put in place, the paper found. Dealing with a pandemic would be everyone's responsibility.

"The paper also argued that in order for this to work, we, the public, need to adopt a more effective approach to hygiene in the home - called targeted hygiene," she says. "Targeted hygiene is an approach which minimises infection risks by ensuring that our hygiene practices are focused on preventing the spread of infection from an infected source.

"Preventing spread of coronavirus is not about 'protecting your home'. It is about preventing its spread from person to person. It is important to remember that coronavirus, like any other virus, cannot 'breed' outside human cells. But it can can be transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets which are directly inhaled or via hands and surfaces where it can survive and remain infectious for some time."

In a nutshell, it's vital we are washing our hands to protect against the virus. But taking extra caution to disinfect and wash any surfaces that we, or others, may have touched, including your groceries, is a good idea.

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