The Theater of Cleanliness

The pandemic has changed customer perceptions of shopping safety and what that means for retailers. 

January 13, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—What’s the riskiest thing when it comes to COVID-19? Being around other people—that’s what Dr. Ben Chapman, professor and food-safety extension specialist at N.C. State University, said on this week’s episode of Convenience Matters, “Foodservice: Not Risky Business.”

“It’s shared air,” Chapman said. “Virus particles move from one person or multiple persons through the moisture droplets when we all talk or laugh or cough or sing or whatever. That’s our No. 1 risk factor.”

That’s why face coverings and social distancing are so important, especially in retail settings. The secondary focus is on containing disease transmission through cleaning. “[W]e can’t see the virus particles, [but] … we certainly can see an employee in a convenience store, in a grocery store, in a restaurant, in a farmer’s market, cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces,” Chapman said.

He noted that the science is continually evolving to understand how much risk reduction is achieved out of cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces that isn’t also controlled by hand washing.

“The public has become in tune with [seeing employees cleaning],” Chapman said. “Certainly in the convenience store setting, that’s a lot labor and lot of disinfection.”

One aspect that Chapman has been studying with researchers from other universities of FoodCoVNET, of which NACS is a stakeholder, is the notion of “hygiene theater.” Retailers aren’t looking to clean less, but they do want to make sure they are using their resources well.

“Our project is really looking at this to develop the data to help answer these questions,” he said. “We’re doing this to help understand where we need to be putting our risk reduction investment of time and labor and focus.”

Chapman is also the co-host of short-form podcast called Risky or Not?, where he and Dr. Don Schaffner of Rutgers University answer questions about whether something is risky or not, such as thawing poultry at room temperature, eating roadkill, storing homemade garlic confit and using three-day-old hand towels.

Listen to the Convenience Matters podcast for more insights on foodservice, cleaning and the coronavirus. Each week a new episode is released. With more than 260 episodes to choose from, the podcast can be heard on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and other podcast apps and YouTube and at www.conveniencematters.com. Episodes have been downloaded more than 208,000 times by listeners around the world.

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