COVID-19 Stockpiling

Will the Bulk Section Survive the Virus?

Brogan O'Hare

Next time you’re visiting the grocery store to restock your pantry, stop by the bulk foods section. If it looks gutted and empty, don’t be surprised. While most grocery stores generally saw a rise in sales over the last few months, public health concerns are hitting this section of the supermarket hard. Covid-19 is a highly contagious virus and can persist on surfaces. So my question is, is it any time to be self-serving dry bulk goods from containers with our hands? If so, will this be the new normal?

Fears over food safety and cross-contamination are nothing new, especially in the bulk section. Though the deli and bakery departments also sell foods that haven’t been prepackaged, store employees act as the mailmen between the unpackaged food and the consumer. Bulk is different: It is an entirely do it yourself kind of department, with just a little oversight to ensure people aren’t digging through the containers bare-handed. Of course, we as consumers touch produce with our bare hands, too—but as customers, we can theoretically go home to wash, and then cook the items and/or food we touched. The ready-to-eat nature of many goods in bulk—freeze-dried foods and non-perishables—can sit in these serving bins for weeks at a time, making the section, at this moment, particularly empty. In response to these concerns, many stores have already taken action. A spokesperson for Stop and Shop told The Counter it has “eliminated all self-serve stations.” Others are primarily targeting scoop bins. And then there are some that devote a large portion of its floor space to scoop bins, now have some sort of customer care programs where employees wearing gloves will perform the scooping for customers—a solution that may reduce the threat of cross-contamination, but drastically increases the labor involved according to their website.

It’s hard to say whether Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on the way people view package-free shopping. But in the short term, the relationship to bulk has changed drastically. Not long ago, using your containers at the grocery store was acceptable, and growing in popularity, with stores popping up all the time specializing in this style of package-free shopping. Today, many view this behavior as a health hazard. Stores that once encouraged BYO (Bring Your Own) bags and containers have slowly reversed their stance in response to the pandemic, temporarily banning customers from bringing reusable grocery bags to the store. The plastics industry, for its part, is taking advantage of the moment, hyping up the safety implications of food packaging, and advising local governments to reconsider proposed bans on disposable plastics, like styrofoam. 

But Catherine Conway, who curates zero-waste bulk aisles for corporate grocers in the United Kingdom, believes the real risk is less BYO and more “customers’ repeated touching of the same equipment [gravity bin and scoop bin handles, scales, etc].”  “We need to remember there are plenty of similar risks even in packaged food [i.e. an infected customer could pick up a tin of beans, put it back on the shelf and that’s the same level of transmission risk as a BYO container],” she told The Counter in an email. Still, she feels halting BYO programs temporarily is the right thing to do for the time being “until we understand more about how the virus is transmitted, and how high risk [these] containers are.” Which brings to the forefront yet another important question in food. What are the actual threats to public health posed by package-free food during this pandemic?

The uneasy answer is that it is mostly unknown. Researchers are still learning more about how long Covid-19 can live on surfaces, and the dangers of the specific behaviors we exhibit during grocery shopping, and in the bulk aisle especially. This will indefinitely require further study. In the meantime, it’s hard to say how a policy will develop during these unsure times. The global pandemic has risen concerns lurking beneath the American spirit for over a century. This has thrown the anti-plastic packaging movement, in which bulk shopping plays a starring role a massive curveball: When health is on the line, food armored in layers of pre-packed plastic just feels safer. And while this development may be bad news for the bulk aisle, at least in its old-school, DIY incarnation, it may be an opportunity to re-do and update this section of the store to meet more modern perceptions of health and hygiene. After all, filling our oceans with plastic pollution isn’t exactly sanitary either. 

The pandemic will most likely alter many aspects of public life forever, and bulk shopping is no exception. “When we come out the other side,” said Catherine Conway in the same email to The Counter, “we may have to look differently at how bulk sections are designed and managed, in the same way, we will have to re-look at all our public spaces.”


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