Coronavirus pandemic: Doctor applies 'sterile technique' to cleaning groceries, handling takeout

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Grocery stores, being essential businesses, remain open across the country during the coronavirus pandemic. But are food purchases safe to unpack inside our homes?

Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen recently went viral on YouTube for sharing a “sterile technique,” inspired by sterilizing practices used by medical professionals, to sanitize groceries and safely handle takeout food before digging in — but another expert claims some of his ideas don't really apply, and may not be scientifically sound.

VanWingen is a family physician based in Grand Rapids, Mich. with over 20 years of experience, Fox 2 reports. He shared his tips to YouTube on Tuesday in a 13-minute clip called “PSA Safe Grocery Shopping in COVID-19 Pandemic," which has since been viewed more than 12 million times.

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VanWingen described the “sterile technique” as a method used by healthcare professionals before performing surgeries to create a sterile environment and reduce risk of infection for the patient, and he deduced that the same practices could be applied to reduce the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus at the grocery store,

“I'm going to help you adapt those techniques to decrease your risk of contracting coronavirus when you go out and get food,” he said.

At the store, VanWingen said that shoppers should wipe down their cart upon arrival, commit to purchases in advance (before touching many products unnecessarily), and stock up for two weeks if they can to limit trips to the store. If shoppers are experiencing respiratory symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19, they should avoid the supermarket altogether, he said.

Citing the National Institutes of Health that coronavirus can live for days on certain surfaces, VanWingen claimed that the safest bet for eliminating the risk of COVID-19 contamination was to leave groceries in the garage or on the porch for three days. Acknowledging that this may a difficult option for many people, he demonstrated how to “remove possible coronavirus from the grocery containers and groceries themselves.”

Grocery stores remain open across the country during the coronavirus pandemic — but are food purchases safe to unpack inside our homes?

Grocery stores remain open across the country during the coronavirus pandemic — but are food purchases safe to unpack inside our homes? (iStock)

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At home, VanWingen recommended that people sanitize the area that they will be unpacking their purchases on with a standard disinfectant. Then, the doctor divided his unpacking area into “clean” and “dirty” sides, placing the unpacked groceries on the “dirty” side and moving them to the “clean” area after sanitizing. Moving through the purchases, VanWingen saturated a rag with Lysol and cleaned down a bottle of prescription pills, pulled a bag of cereal out of its box and discarded the box, and highlighted that consumers could either drop fresh produce – like a bag of broccoli – directly into a refrigerator crisper, or sanitize the exterior of the bag with the Lysol-soaked rag.

“Make sure your rag is good and saturated with disinfectant, cause you gotta be putting that disinfectant on these groceries and making sure you're scrubbing them,” he said.

VanWingen dumped a loaf of bread right into a clean container, then pointed out that items packaged in “more hearty” surfaces – like a box of chicken stock and jar of pickles — could be directly sprayed down with the disinfectants themselves.

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He also sprayed down a bag of potato chips, claiming that shoppers would want to purposefully scrub and “wipe off the areas that you think human hands were touching a bit more liberally, than the areas that you don’t think human hands have touched.”

As for fruit, VanWingen said that it should be washed thoroughly for 20 seconds, showing off a bag of oranges that he dumped in soapy water, to be cleaned individually.

Proceeding on to takeout, the physician took out two paper bags containing fast food meals, placed them on the “dirty” side of the table, and then washed his hands for 20 seconds. Carefully removing the wrappings, VanWingen dumped the burgers onto a plate and said they were “OK to microwave.” Pouring out small packets of fast-food sauce onto the plate, he advised that shoppers should “just do the best you can” throughout the process.

"In these unprecedented times, safety out in the marketplace can literally save lives," VanWingen concluded.

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However, VanWingen's practices have come under scrutiny by Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, who spoke with LiveScience about the video. Among Chapman's issues with VanWingen's methods were, superficially, his handling of the proiduce.

"We've known for 60 years that there are toxicity issues about consuming household dish soaps," Chapman told the outlet. "Drinking dish soap or eating it can lead to nausea, can lead to [an] upset stomach. It's not a compound that our stomach is really built to deal with."

Instead, Chapman advised washing produce with cold water.

Chapman also questioned VanWingen's extremely careful handing of the grocery bags and groceries, claiming it was just as effective to put away the groceries and then wash your hands afterward.

"It's not to say that washing my hands is magical, but it's as effective as what he's suggesting," he told LiveScience.

When it comes to handling the foods or food packagings themselves, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) say there is currently no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be transmitted by handling either — though the FDA notes that it is possible the virus that causes the coronavirus may be able to live on “surfaces or objects.” The CDC adds that while it’s possible to become infected by touching a contaminated surface and touching the face, “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

The FDA adds that there is no evidence to support the notion of contracting coronavirus from imported goods.

Despite this, shoppers should continue to protect their own health and safety by practicing good respiratory hygiene (coughing into the elbow, staying home while sick, etc.) and personal hygiene (refraining from touching potentially contaminated surfaces, properly washing hands, etc.) at all times during the coronavirus outbreak — even at the supermarket.

Fox News’ Michael Bartiromo contributed to this report.