TORONTO -- For many Canadians, the outbreak of a new virus was met with a trip to the grocery store. What seemed to be simple advice from the government sent buyers into panic mode, stocking up on masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper in the face of coronavirus.

While photos of empty store shelves took over social media, less attention has been given to the handling of fruits and vegetables that are typically displayed openly in grocery stores, where they can be touched by shoppers.

One viewer told CTVNews.ca she’s worried about the handling of produce in the grocery storewhere she works. As a cashier, besides handling cash, she regularly touches fruits and vegetables after they’ve been handled by customers, as she scans and bags them.

“There is no time to sanitize our hands before the next customer,” she wrote to CTVNews.ca. “This is a highly contagious environment.”

Is it time to change the way stores and customers handle produce?

According to Tim Sly, epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University, viruses in general are capable of living on different surfaces for extended periods of time.

“Virus survival rates can vary from minutes to weeks depending on moisture, exposure to sunlight, temperature, and more,” he told CTVNews.ca.

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is mainly spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets released from the mouth or nose. An infected individual could potentially transfer the virus by coughing or sneezing on a surface, or touching their face and then touching a surface. If someone else were to touch the same surfaceand then their own eyes, mouth or nose, for instance, they could become infected.

The virus can also be contracted by breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes. This is why health officials recommend staying more than a metre away from anyone who is sick.

A new study conducted by U.S. researchers suggests that the novel coronavirus can live in the air for several hours. Traces of the virus have also been found on plastic and stainless steel surfaces after two to three days.

None of these tests, however, involved food.

As the number of coronavirus cases in the country grows, Health Canada’s regulations for washing produce and other foods have so far remained the same. In a statement sent to CTVNews.ca, the federal agency said its “recommendations for keeping your food safe would not change due to COVID-19.”

These recommendations include giving fruits and vegetables a good rub under running water – cool or lukewarm is preferred. Health Canada also says it isn’t necessary to use solutions specifically designed for cleaning fruits and vegetables, known as produce cleansers.

At the moment, there’s no evidence to suggest that using these products is more effective than just using water.

But, while Sly agrees they aren’t necessary, he says they certainly wouldn’t hurt.

“It’s a precautionary principle,” he says. “If a risk can be reduced easily and cost-effectively, why not do that? It wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

For those worried about contamination, packaged produce is an alternative. Sly admits that, while the packaging prevents contamination at the point of sale, it doesn’t address the fact that the produce may have already been handled by workers who haven’t washed their hands, for instance.

“In this case, the packaging is not going to help [prevent the spread of coronavirus], it just gives people a false sense of security.”

The WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both stress the importance of washing your hands before preparing and consuming food. Health authorities recommend washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to prevent the risk of contracting coronavirus.

Whether it’s your hands or the food itself, Sly recommends a good wash first.

“We’re in new territory here in terms of this virus,” he says. “It’s good to put a procedural barrier in front of these things.”