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COVID Can Live on These 5 Grocery Items for Days, Says New Report

Researchers discovered the worst COVID offenders.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Don't put those antibacterial wipes away just yet—a new report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK suggests that COVID-19 can survive up to a week on certain grocery items. "The foods tested were selected because they are commonly sold loose on supermarkets shelves or uncovered at deli counters or market stalls, they may be difficult to wash, and they are often consumed without any further processing i.e. cooking," the FSA report says. "The food packaging materials were selected as they are the most used food packaging materials or consumption of the product may involve direct mouth contact with the packaging."

For the sake of accuracy, researchers deliberately placed the virus on the items in a way that recreated respiratory droplets landing on their surfaces—for example, via sneezing. "Results showed that virus survival varied depending on the foods and food packaging examined. For most foods tested there was a significant drop in levels of virus contamination over the first 24 hours… In both chilled and ambient conditions at a range of relative humidity levels, some foods and food packaging material can sustain infectious virus for a significant length of time. It should be noted that foods and packaging considered as part of this study were artificially inoculated with SARS-CoV-2 and therefore are not a reflection of contamination levels found on these foods at retail, and lower levels of contamination will require less time to decline to undetectable levels."

One interesting outcome of the research was the discovery that certain foods contained compounds that protected against the virus. "Some foods, such as apples and olives, contain naturally occurring bioactive chemicals which may exhibit potential antiviral properties and therefore contribute to rapid SARS-CoV-2 inactivation. This effect was seen within a few minutes," the study says. This is in stark contrast to foods and items tested at different temperatures and humidity levels where the virus survived for up to a week. Here are the top offenders. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

Broccoli

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COVID can live on broccoli for up to five days, researchers found. "The virus is expected to survive better at chill temperatures on foods and packaging materials compared to ambient temperatures (Anelich et al., 2020) but for fresh vegetables presented in this report the difference between survival at chill and ambient conditions, is not so clear cut," the report says. "For example, this study's results suggests that on the surface of broccoli, SARS-CoV-2 survives for the longest time, up to 5 days, at the ambient temperature of 23°C and 31% RH. On pepper the virus survives for longest (up to 7 days) at the chill temperature of 6°C and 40% RH. The differences are however not statistically significant."

Experts recommend washing all produce thoroughly before use. "It is recommended that you wash or scrub fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, preparing, or cooking," says Molly Fleece, MD. "Do not wash fruits or vegetables with soap, detergents, or other disinfecting products. Washed fruits and vegetables should then be dried and stored separate from other raw or unwashed foods."

2

Cheese

camembert cheese
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COVID can live on cheese for up to seven days. "For most foods tested there was a significant drop in levels of virus contamination over the first 24 hours," reads the report. "In several cases, e.g., peppers, bread crust, ham, and cheese, infectious virus was detected for several days under some conditions. Even on the surfaces of croissants and pain au chocolate, infectious virus could be found for several hours. For a highly infectious agent such as SARS-CoV-2, which can be transmitted through touching contaminated surfaces and then the face, these findings are highly noteworthy."

"If possible, buy a box of disposable gloves from Amazon or your local hardware store. Use them when shopping, buying gas, or handling goods that may be contaminated," says Ron Kopito, PhD, a professor of biology at Stanford University. "Most important, remove and discard the gloves before entering your home, touching your doorknob, opening your car door, or driving. Once they've been used to touch contaminated materials, the gloves should be assumed to be contaminated. Remember, even if you use gloves, you should still wash your hands or use sanitizer when returning to your home."

3

Chilled Deli Meat

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COVID can live on deli meats for up to a week. "There have been other studies looking at SARS-CoV-2 survival on deli items, but as far as we know, this study is the first to investigate the virus's survival under defined relative humidity conditions on sliced ham and cheddar cheese… As in this study, they also found that deli items high in protein and saturated fat, with a relatively high-water content, supported longer virus survival. The mechanism of how SARS-CoV-2 and other enveloped viruses attach to foods has yet to be determined. However, these studies and the findings in this report, showing the long survival time of SARS-CoV-2 on sliced ham and cheddar cheese, with their high protein, saturated fat and water content, highlight the importance of proper food handling to prevent any contamination by virus prior to consumption."

"Moist, semi-solid foods are a wonderful medium for microbes and can boost the longevity of the virus," says Dr. Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health. "It's as good of an environment for the virus as your mouth… If someone coughs on an apple at the Trader Joe's and you touch it, chances are you're going to get it on your fingers and may infect yourself," he said. "Eating it is going to be risky unless you thoroughly wash it."

4

Plastic Surfaces Including Bottles

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COVID can survive on plastic surfaces for up to seven days. "Several studies have investigated the survival of SARS-CoV-2 under several different environmental conditions and have shown that viral persistence under indoor conditions is complex and may be driven by many factors, including surface type, surface porosity, virus in droplets or aerosols, temperature, relative humidity and matrix," the report states. "However, most studies broadly agree with our findings, that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on plastic for between 3 days and 7 days, at either 21-23°C or at 4°C."

Experts recommend thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces on a regular basis. "In non-health care settings, sodium hypochlorite (bleach / chlorine) may be used at a recommended concentration of 0.1% or 1,000ppm (1 part of 5% strength household bleach to 49 parts of water)," recommends the World Health Organization. "Alcohol at 70-90% can also be used for surface disinfection. Surfaces must be cleaned with water and soap or a detergent first to remove dirt, followed by disinfection.  Cleaning should always start from the least soiled (cleanest) area to the most soiled (dirtiest) area in order to not spread the dirty to areas that are less soiled. All disinfectant solutions should be stored in opaque containers, in a well-ventilated, covered area that is not exposed to direct sunlight and ideally should be freshly prepared every day. In indoor spaces, routine application of disinfectants to surfaces via spraying is not recommended for COVID-19. If disinfectants are to be applied, these should be via a cloth or wipe which is soaked in the disinfectant."

5

Refrigerated Fresh Peppers

woman cooking with bell peppers to live a longer life
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COVID can live on the surface of refrigerated peppers for up to a week. "Fruits and vegetables add nutrients to your diet that help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and some cancers," says the CDC. "Also, choosing vegetables, fruits, and nuts over high-calorie foods can help you manage your weight. Sometimes, raw fruits and vegetables contain harmful germs that can make you and your family sick, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. CDC estimates that germs on fresh produce cause a large percentage of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The safest produce to eat is cooked; the next safest is washed. You can enjoy uncooked fruits and vegetables by taking the following steps to reduce your risk of foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning:

  • Wash your hands, kitchen utensils, and food preparation surfaces, including chopping boards and countertops, before and after preparing fruits and vegetables. 
  • Clean fruits and vegetables before eating, cutting, or cooking, unless the package says the contents have been washed.
  • Wash or scrub fruits and vegetables under running water—even if you do not plan to eat the peel. Germs on the peel or skin can get inside fruits and vegetables when you cut them.
  • Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash is not recommended. Do not use bleach solution or other disinfecting products on fruits and vegetables. 
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating. 
  • Dry fruit or vegetables with a clean paper towel."

6

How to Stay Safe Out There

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Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan