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June 25th: Spreading Viruses in the Grocery Store via Reusable Grocery Bags

Reusable grocery bags (RGBs) are a common commodity these days but a recent study  sheds light on the potential for contaminated RGBs to spread viruses to surfaces within a public grocery store.. The virus is a major concern in the food production, service and grocery retail industries. The research team recruited volunteer shoppers in 3 California grocery stores and instructed them to complete their shopping using a polypropylene RGB provided by the researchers. The dry bags had been sprayed previously with a solution of a safe norovirus surrogate, known as “MS2 bacteriophage. As volunteers shopped, the surfaces they contacted were swabbed by the research team for microbial analysis. The highest concentration of MS2 was found on the hands of clerks and volunteer shoppers, followed by packaged food surfaces and progressively lower levels on 12 other grocery store surfaces. These include unpackaged produce, cart surfaces and the customer checkout touch screen. Importantly, even the lowest average concentration of virus particles detected on any surface in the study (10,000 PFU1 /cm2 ) would represent a virus transmission risk The researchers note that although each volunteer shopper contacted only a small percentage of available surfaces in the store, the one surface touched by every shopper was the check-out stand. They suggest the check-out stand and possibly the grocery cart could be “ideal targets for new industry cleaning standards or new materials (such as antimicrobial surfaces).” Given the fact that hands were the most contaminated surfaces in this study, the researchers concluded that in-store hand hygiene campaigns are needed and provision of hand-sanitizer dispensers at the check-out stands for use by the clerks and to wipe off the touch screen. It was also concluded that shoppers should be encouraged to wash and sanitize bags periodically. Additionally, shoppers (and in-store baggers) can be encouraged to take common sense measures to avoid cross-contamination by separating raw meats, poultry and fish from ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits and vegetables as they bag purchases.

The report is published in Journal of Environmental Health. 2018 Jun 1;80(10).