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PORTLAND, Maine — Fresh produce may be part of a healthy diet, but the coronavirus outbreak poses additional concerns to some grocery shoppers.
Crowds in supermarkets, bins of tomatoes that shoppers readily touch, open salad bars and exposed prepared food areas can cause unease during a rapidly spreading outbreak.
In response, supermarkets are beefing up cleaning procedures and adding more sanitizing stations within the store for customers. They also are educating employees and providing them with up-to-date information on the latest guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“They are taking extra steps to clean and sanitize the stores and equipment and emphasize personal hygiene,” said Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association in Augusta. “We’ll see an increase in the use of gloves and masks and things to help prevent the spread of infection. Shoppers shouldn’t be fearful. It demonstrates the store is taking extra precautions.”
She said shoppers need to be thoughtful about their own hygiene and habits.
“If you don’t intend to buy a certain piece of produce, don’t pick it up,” she said. “If you feel ill or have symptoms, stay away.”
The new coronavirus cannot live in food, but health experts still are learning how it is transmitted. The most common way is through sneezing and close contact with infected people.
And a research study of an earlier coronavirus found that virus could survive for several days on the surface of lettuce and strawberries. Handling such produce and then touching the face or mouth may transmit an infection, the authors found.
That’s one reason experts recommend washing produce and hands as well as thoroughly cooking food.
Consumer Reports said that while it’s important to rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water after buying them, there’s no data to show that washing them with soap will do a better job of eliminating coronavirus.
The magazine recommends paying with credit or debit cards to avoid handling cash, using a germicide to wipe carts and hands before shopping and washing nonporous containers before storing them in the cupboard at home.
For their part, supermarkets say they are following recommended health precautions to prevent disease spread. That includes sanitizers for shopping carts and cleaning throughout stores.
“As a food retailer, we have rigorous protocols in place to ensure we remain compliant with strict food safety regulations,” said Teresa Edington, a spokesperson for Shaw’s Supermarket and Star Market. “We encourage customers to wash their fresh food at home. We urge everyone to follow the recommendations of the CDC to help prevent the spread of disease, like frequent hand washing, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and staying at home when you have a fever.”
She said the supermarket chain, which has 154 stores in New England and 21 Shaw’s in Maine, has given its employees the latest information from the CDC and is maintaining an internal resource page.
Edington said customers should follow the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for handling food, including washing fresh produce under cold water prior to preparing and eating it.
Hannaford, which has more than 180 stores in New England, has been following CDC recommendations as well, spokesman Eric Blom said.
“Hannaford has rigorous cleaning procedures in place that focus on touchpads, checkout belts and surfaces that people may touch frequently,” he said. “Cleaning takes place across the store, from the grocery areas to the bathrooms. Our food safety practices are exhaustive and thorough.”
He said the store also has implemented travel restrictions, asked workers not to attend conferences or other group gatherings and postponed or canceled meetings with large numbers of people.
“We have seen a sharp spike in demand for products such as cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, and we are working closely with our suppliers to provide our customers with the products they need,” he said. “Our team is searching widely for new sources of supply for harder-to-find items, and stores have implemented a purchase limit on certain items to ensure those products are available to customers.”
For its part, Walmart, which is a large food seller, has been sending memos to employees about what to do if they get sick and how to keep the stores clean, spokesman Casey Staheli said. Walmart has a total of 25 stores in Maine, including supercenters, discount stores and Sam’s Clubs.
“Stores are cleaned daily, which includes using sanitizing solutions in high-touch, high-traffic areas,” Walmart said in a March 10 memo. “We’ve seen increased foot traffic, so we’re sending additional cleaning supplies for use in places like the registers and on shopping carts.”
The store also is looking for easier ways to sanitize shopping carts.
It has plans in place for a third-party to sanitize a store if it is affected by the virus. It also is evaluating whether to change hours at some 24-hour stores to allow for additional cleaning.
Another option for shoppers is to avoid going into stores altogether.
“For older people and those with underlying health conditions — the group that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends stay home — I would highly recommend using a grocery delivery service,” said Jim Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.
Cummings expects more shoppers to take advantage of online ordering and curbside pickup.
“That’s already a trend because of the convenience factor,” she said. “But with the virus, it allows folks to reduce their exposure to crowds.”