Coronavirus: Washing fresh produce with soap a 'bad idea'

New Zealanders may be increasingly concerned about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) surviving on food, yet the seemingly common-sense approach to wash fruit and vegetables before consumption is being disputed.

Michigan family doctor Jeffrey VanWingen went viral this week after sharing a video to YouTube, claiming that people must wash their produce with soap throughout the pandemic.

Dr VanWingen suggests pre-soaking fruit and vegetables in soapy water before washing the produce, again with soap, for 20 seconds.

Within five days, his advice has been viewed more than 18 million times.

However, US scientists have informed Live Science that potential viruses on the skins of fresh produce should not be substituted for "toxic" household dish soaps.

Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, warns this process could cause mild gastrointestinal irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain, as the porous produce will absorb household cleaning products. 

"We've known for 60 years that there are toxicity issues about consuming household dish soaps," he told Live Science. "It's not a compound that our stomach is really built to deal with."

Instead, people should be washing fruit and vegetables with cold running water, Chapman advised, saying the rinse will help to remove anything undesirable from the skin.

Dr VanWingen also suggested keeping new groceries on the porch or in the garage for at least three days if possible. He then advised disinfecting or discarding packaging before putting the products away.

Chapman says "quarantining" groceries and sanitising food containers is not necessary and is scientifically questionable. 

"We don't have any evidence that food or food packaging are transmission vehicles for coronavirus," he said, instead suggesting that people wash their hands or use hand sanitiser after handling or putting away groceries.

Advice for New Zealanders

In keeping with the Ministry of Health's advice, New Zealanders should be washing their hands before entering and after leaving the supermarket. Carrying an alcohol-based hand sanitiser is useful for immediate use and a disinfectant wipe on the cart handle wouldn't go amiss. In line with New Zealand's official guidelines, people should be maintaining a two-metre distance between themselves and others.

During a press conference on Sunday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield reiterated that New Zealanders can quash fears of object-to-person transmission by washing their hands after handling questionable products.

"People don't need to do anything else - if they really wanted to, they could wipe things over with a mild disinfectant or cloth," he suggested.