I have seen several posts recently about how to shop in Covid-world that have given me pause. Perhaps the most headshaking of these was a video from a family physician showing how to use sterile technique on your groceries. Sterile technique is the method used in a medical setting to minimize the chance of infection, primarily related to surgery or the care for open wounds. As I write this, 12 million people have viewed this video and are, presumably, out there unpacking the groceries with full on OCD. Setting aside the fact that he violates sterile procedure (e.g., the opening of the cereal box), the whole notion that this is necessary suggests that we must function in a sterile bubble because we must get to zero risk. I believe that this obsession with zero risk is not simply unnecessary, but creates its own risks with real consequences.
The threat posed by Covid-19 is far from trivial, but like other serious risks we face, we need to minimize it, while balancing other concerns. For example, if you want to reduce your risk of dying in a car crash, slow down, obey the rules, and don’t drink. If you really want to be obsessive, take surface streets and avoid the highway. If you want to have zero risk, start walking.
I do not mean to impugn this physician. His video is clearly well intentioned, but techniques that are necessary when you are about to open a patient’s abdomen are absurd in the context of unbagging groceries. Yes, we can all imagine a scenario in which someone from the 0.1% of the population that has the infection picks their nose while shopping for broccoli, selects a head only after touching and rejecting a different head, which we naively pick up and bring home, then later, as we prepare dinner, we absent-mindedly nibble on a virus-laden floret, thereby sealing our fate. This is conceivable in the same way it is conceivable that a meth-crazed teenager in an F-150 will blow through a red-light and T-bone us. It’s a possibility, we should be cautious at intersections, but we can’t and don’t spend our lives stressing about it. Many things are possible, but we need to concern ourselves most with what is probable.
The threat from Covid comes from infected people and the greatest risk is to those who must get close to them. Health care workers are becoming infected at terrifying rates because they are around people who are actively coughing. They are being forced to reuse face masks because they don’t have enough. They can’t do enough to minimize risk. Doctors and nurses are dying. The elderly and those with chronic disease are also at elevated risk and it is essential that we do everything we can to protect them. The one part of the video that makes some sense is the need to take extra caution with the elderly, perhaps not at the level he demonstrates, but making sure their food is either cooked or sits for three days at room temperature [please see below for details] before use. At this point, there is no compelling evidence of foodborne spread of this disease. Note that going to the market involves a different set of risks, which I have discussed elsewhere, because it involves interacting with people more directly.
In sum, the anxiety driving us to sterilize our groceries does far more harm than any risk posed by unsterilized groceries. It creates stress, which has its own negative consequences, puts more waste and plastic in our landfills, and uses resources that would be put to far better use protecting caregivers, medical professionals, and the vulnerable.
[NOTE: My comment about simple ways to add an extra level of food for the vulnerable has rightly drawn some questions. Please allow me to explain. The virus does not appear to remain viable in the environment for more than about three days at room temperature. If you wait three days to eat it, you will be fine. You cannot of course do that with perishable items, but most of those are either wrapped or in containers. What is inside the containers is safe. If you are cooking it, you will sterilize it. If not, pour it directly from the containers and, after you are done with prep, wash your hands before eating. Thanks, as always, for keeping me honest.]