Grocery Shoppers Can Breathe a Sigh of Relief After WCU Scientist, His Son Test Safety of Produce Amidst Pandemic

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Vishal Shah, inset, and his son studied fresh fruits and vegetables found in open-air bins of area grocery stores.

Vishal Shah, a microbiologist and West Chester University’s Interim Vice Provost and Associate Dean of the College of the Sciences and Mathematics, teamed up with his son, Anand Shah, a student at Charles F. Patton Middle School in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, to study fresh fruits and vegetables found in open-air bins of area grocery stores.

The team’s goal was timely and ambitious: to confirm guidance provided by the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that touching and handling of food with the novel coronavirus on the surface would not contribute to the spread of the virus. The team’s findings enable shoppers to breathe a sigh of relief.

As indicated in their study, which was published in ACS Food Science and Technology, the local scientists discovered that a high presence of the virus was not found on the surface of fruits and vegetables examined, and that the guidelines of regulatory agencies are adequate. Fruits and vegetables in grocery stores are not the major source of spread of the virus in the community.

The father-son team came to this conclusion by studying 10 grocery stores in Philadelphia and neighboring counties throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. High-touch open fruits and vegetables (apples, asparagus, avocado, bananas, broccoli, carrots, garlic, grapes, lemon, lettuce, onions, pears, potatoes, and tomatoes) were purchased on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 during the peak hours of 10 AM to 6 PM. On the day of the sampling, all of the counties had high levels of community spread of the virus. At least five individual fruits and vegetables, none of which were pre-packaged, were purchased from each store. For each fruit or vegetable from a given store, five individual items were selected and each was swabbed five times using the same swab. Grocery bags from individual stores served as controls. Swabs were analyzed for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 by Assured Bio Labs in Tennessee. 

Of the 140 fruits and vegetables tested from 10 stores, 10 samples could not be included in the result analysis due to the presence of certain pesticides or other chemicals present on the surface of the produce. Viral analysis of the swab samples from the fruits and vegetables obtained from nine stores showed no presence of the virus on the surface. SARS-CoV-2 was confirmed, however, on the surface of only one produce (apple) from a single store at the concentration of 11 genomic equivalents/swab. No control samples showed the presence of the virus.

“Our research shows that there is not a high presence of the virus on the surface of fruits and vegetables in grocery stores,” said Anand Shah. “The guidelines provided by regulatory agencies are, therefore, adequate. Fruits and vegetables in grocery stores are not the major source of spread of the virus in the community. Nevertheless, there is a small chance that a person can expose themselves to SARS-CoV-2 by touching the surfaces of fruits and vegetables. Considering this, we recommend either using hand sanitizer or washing hands after handling produce.”

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