Do you need to wash fruits and vegetables with soap? Coronavirus experts weigh in

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If you’re following government guidelines for physical distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, grocery shopping is probably one of the only remaining reasons you leave your house.

Some provincial governments have begun to provide guidelines to grocery stores to ensure the spaces remain as safe as possible during the pandemic. On Sunday, the government in British Columbia ordered that all stores must have hand sanitizer stations, provide clean carry-out bags and enforce physical distancing measures.

But what happens when you arrive home? Can you track the virus into your house on the skin of the apples, pears and other produce?

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Unfortunately, much remains unknown about COVID-19 and how long it lives on different surfaces.

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A study published in March determined the new coronavirus can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for as long as two to three days.

For the study, researchers used a nebulizer device to put samples of the virus into the air, imitating what might happen if an infected person coughed or made the virus airborne some other way.

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They found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours later on copper, up to 24 hours later on cardboard and up to two to three days later on plastic and stainless steel.

“We do know that the coronavirus can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours,” Dr. Jeff Kwong, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News.

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For this reason, he believes it could be possible that “if someone with COVID-19 coughed or sneezed on your groceries, there could be coronavirus on them.”

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However, Kwong warns that he doesn’t have “definitive answers” to these questions because much about the virus remains unknown.

“As a precaution, especially if there are vulnerable people in the household, wiping down [or] washing the groceries might not be a bad idea,” Kwan told Global News. He recommends using soap and water or an alcohol-based disinfectant.

For any groceries that come in a container, Dr. Anna Banerji suggests disposing of the box or bag before going into the house if it will give you peace of mind.

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“You can take it out of the container it comes in, if you’re worried about it,” said Banerji, an expert in communicable diseases and professor of Indigenous and refugee health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

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“Put it in the recycling and then wash your hands.”

However, this advice does not apply to fruits and vegetables, according to food scientist Jeff Farber.

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“You should definitely not be washing your fruits and vegetables with soap before eating. Soap and water is meant for cleaning hands,” said Farber, who works as the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety.

“In fact, [ingesting] soap has been known to cause things like vomiting or diarrhea in humans. It’s definitely not a good practice.”

Farber says simply washing produce with cold water and rubbing the skin with your hands is sufficient.

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When it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, it’s especially important to practise good hygiene in the kitchen.

Wash your hands as soon as you arrive home from the grocery store, said Farber.

He also recommends sanitizing all the countertops, cutting boards and utensils before and after preparing food. This can be done using soap and water or alcohol-based disinfectant.

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Other produce tips to remember

Unrelated to coronavirus, bacteria can be a major concern for produce.

You probably don’t wash your avocados, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s a pretty good reason you should — even when COVID-19 isn’t a threat.

In a 2018 report published by the FDA, experts found more than 17 per cent of avocados had Listeria monocytogenes on the skin. Even though you would never eat an avocado’s skin, the FDA noted this foodborne pathogen can be transferred by a knife.

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“Even if you plan to cut the rind or peel off the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit,” the report added.

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Farmer also suggests avoiding items that seem bruised or damaged in any way, because those are the ones that make it “much easier for bacteria like salmonella and listeria to attach.”

“If you’re buying ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, make sure they’re properly refrigerated at four degrees Celsius or below,” Farber said.

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Like avocados, the same rules of washing before eating should apply to other fruits with inedible peels like citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit), tropical fruits (banana and pineapples) and squashes: Experts recommended washing all fresh fruit and veggies with cool tap water before eating — there’s no need to use soap or produce wash.

And when you are washing, rub the skin or use a produce brush.

Farber says it’s also very important to keep produce separate from meat, poultry and seafood during cooking.

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“Make sure you wash your hands with warm water and soap when you come in from the store, and cut away any bruises or damaged areas from the produce before eating,” he said.

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For pre-packaged lettuce or anything that has already been washed, it’s not necessary to wash it again.

“These are usually triple-washed by the manufacturing facility, so it’s generally unnecessary to wash those again before eating,” Farber said.

Grocery delivery options

Major chains like Real Canadian Superstore and Walmart offer delivery services in many parts of Canada, while local, independent stores in cities like Toronto and Vancouver have drop-off services for shoppers, too.

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Due to high demand, however, some customers can expect to experience longer than usual wait times; in some cases, days. Many stores have also seen a significant increase in store traffic as people have been “panic shopping” — something experts urge against.

For a full list of grocery delivery services available across Canada, click here.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

— With files from Global News’ Arti Patel & Laura Hensley

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