This post explores the expert advice on this question, how it has evolved, and how it has been reported. This is in keeping with an occasional theme of this blog: How do we find news we can trust? (See this and this, for example.)
Three months ago there was a YouTube video on this topic that went viral: “COVID-19 Food Safety Tips.” This video, which has been viewed 26 million times, recommends wiping down your groceries and shows how to do it. Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I twice recommended this video. See Hunkering Down (March 28) and We are in a war (April 4).
This week there was news about updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC made minor changes to this webpage: How COVID-19 Spreads. The CDC now believes that it is even less likely than previously thought that COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces. (It was never thought that this was a major method of transmission.)
The CDC guidance does not mention groceries, but this sparked my interest, and in poking around further I found this guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that speaks directly to my question: Shopping for Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Information for Consumers. Some quotes:
As grocery shopping remains a necessity during this pandemic, many people have questions about how to shop safely. We want to reassure consumers that there is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
6. Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.
Whoa! I had not heard that before. That is considerably different advice from the food safety video mentioned above, which was produced by a medical doctor (MD) not associated with either the CDC or the FDA. The FDA published that guidance on April 16. That was 2-3 weeks after the food safety video came out, and more than five weeks ago now.
As we gain more experience with COVID-19, it is natural that our views about the precautions we should take may change. That does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that I hadn’t heard of the April 16 FDA guidance before.
Well, how did I hear of the FDA guidance now? Two news articles came to my attention this week about the CDC guidance:
- Fox News reported on May 20: CDC now says coronavirus ‘does not spread easily’ via contaminated surfaces.
- The Washington Post reported on May 21: Virus ‘does not spread easily’ from contaminated surfaces or animals, revised CDC website states.
The Fox News article mentioned the FDA guidance from last month, which they also reported on at the time. I cannot find that the Washington Post has ever mentioned the April 16 FDA guidance. I don’t read Fox News much. Perhaps I should read it more?
There was an aspect of the Washington Post article that amused me. They seemed annoyed that they learned about the updated CDC guidance from Fox News instead of the CDC itself. (The Fox News article was dated May 20 and the Washington Post article was dated May 21.) Quotes from the Washington Post article:
Right-wing social media exploited the [CDC’s] website tweaks this week. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity promoted a “breaking” report about the change.
The change to the CDC website, without formal announcement or explanation, concerns Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
My view: Fox News made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on the updated CDC guidance, and the Washington Post made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on Fox News. But Fox News wins on reporting the FDA guidance.
The photo above is from our most recent grocery shopping trip (Costco). We did not wipe down our groceries before putting them away at home.
UPDATE 5/28/2020: The CDC guidance (here) has been changed again! The Fox News article on May 20 was about the fact that the CDC had added a section to its guidance titled “The virus does not spread easily in other ways” which included “from touching surfaces or objects.” Yes, the CDC had added this section, but they later removed it. Here are three versions of the CDC guidance from the Wayback Machine:
- May 1 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section
- May 11 – includes the “does not spread easily” section
- May 25 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section
The CDC explained its latest change here. Fox News covered the latest change here. I cannot find that the Washington Post covered the latest change. I’m still not reading Fox News; I learned about the latest change from the New York Times, which wrote about the matter here and here.
The FDA guidance (here) has not changed.