To suss fact from fiction on everything from washing produce to drive-thru fast food, a trio of experts from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences reached out to remind us what the data says, and to answer common food-safety questions.

When it comes to safe food handling and eating amid COVID-19, it can feel like a battle of myths and facts. Three UF experts are here to help.


As Florida braces for a soon-coming peak in COVID-19 cases, food safety, for many, has been top of mind.


When it comes to safely shopping for groceries, eating takeout and handling food, it can feel like a battle between myths and facts. Can you trust that Facebook post? That Twitter meme? Anything?


To suss fact from fiction on everything from washing produce to drive-thru fast food, a trio of experts from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences reached out to remind us what the data says, and to answer common food-safety questions.


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Keith Schneider is professor of food safety at the university. Andrea Nikolai works as a family and consumer sciences agent with UF's Polk County extension agency. And Amy Simonne is a UF professor of food safety and quality.


Q: Should people leave their groceries for three days in their car or garage to prevent the spread of COVID-19?


Schneider: First off, don’t leave any perishable foods outside, that could lead to a foodborne illness. Next, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is foodborne. If you’re worried about the surfaces of the food items carrying the virus, the best advice is to wash your hands after stocking these items. We’ve been fielding questions about wiping down cans and boxes with sanitizers. If consumers want to wipe boxes or cans with sanitary wipes, they need to make sure that these chemicals do not contact the food as some of these chemicals can be harmful if consumed. If you feel your are in a high-risk group, you can use sanitizing wipes to wipe down boxes and can, but this is not recommended. Hand washing before and after shopping, and social distancing, are still the best methods to reduce disease.


Produce is another area about which we get a lot of questions. Again, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is foodborne. Washing fresh produce before eating is a good idea to remove soil. You don’t have to wash pre-bagged salad mixes, as they have been washed. It is NOT recommended to wash produce with dish soap or any detergent at home. These household detergents or soaps can be dangerous and can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. I can’t repeat this enough: As of now there is no evidence of foodborne transfer. No such warning from the CDC has been issued.


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The best advice is to wash your hands before and after shopping.


Q: Can we use cash to make purchases?


Schneider: Yes you can, but cash should be treated like any other surface you touch. After touching anything that another person has touched, you need to wash your hands or use a gel sanitizer. This is especially problematic when you’re going through a drive-thru where soap and water are not available.


The News-Press food team: When eating via drive-thru, restaurant delivery or takeout, experts advise to take the food home and place it in your own containers. Before eating, toss out the to-go packaging and wash your hands.


Q: Should people disinfect groceries?


Schneider: There’s no need to disinfect groceries to prevent COVID-19, health officials say. Numerous sources, including the CDC, echo this.


Nikolai: Minimize your risk upon entering a grocery store. Use hand sanitizer when entering the store and sanitize or wash your hands as soon as possible after leaving. Many grocery stores are following CDC guidelines on cleaning and sanitizing. Sanitize your shopping cart handle before you begin shopping.


You can protect yourself and others by following a couple of suggestions:


• Avoid touching multiple produce items when making selections. If possible, use hand sanitizer before and after selecting produce items. Also, avoid touching surfaces or items unnecessarily. And avoid touching your mouth, nose or face. It’s an important new habit to practice these days.


• Try to maintain social distancing as much as possible. It’s hard to resist visiting when you see a friend or neighbor, but shopping trips are no longer social outings. Limit personal interactions and try to maintain a 6-foot distance. If another shopper is too close for comfort, kindly ask for safe space. Some stores have placed floor decals for safe spacing near registers — a great idea that will help us help one another.


Simonne: We’re hearing about people wearing gloves in grocery stores. This is not always a good thing if you put the gloves on without washing your hands first. If you don’t change gloves properly, you can cross-contaminate different things.


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Q: Should people wash or soak fruits or vegetables in soapy water?


Schneider: No. There is no evidence of foodborne transfer of COVID-19. Ingestion of soap and detergents could cause gastrointestinal distress.


Simonne: Some doctors tell people to wash fruit and vegetables with soap. This is a “no-no.” Here are tips from the FDA that UF/IFAS recommends:


• Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.


• If damage or bruising occurs before eating or handling, cut away the damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.


• Rinse produce BEFORE you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.


University of Florida public relation specialist Brad Buck contributed reporting; email Buck at bradbuck@ufl.edu.


If you have more questions about food safety and COVID-19, visit edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_covid19 or email our reporter at atometich@news-press.com.


This story originally published to news-press.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.