Will the grocery store bulk aisle survive Covid-19?

As a global pandemic unleashes anxiety about packaging-free foods, a supermarket standby may never be the same.

Next time you’re visiting the grocery store to restock your pantry, pop into the bulk foods department. If it looks gutted, don’t be surprised. While grocery stores generally saw an uptick in sales last month, public health concerns have hit this section of the supermarket hard. Covid-19 is highly contagious and can persist on surfaces, after all. Is it any time to be self-serving dry goods from communal containers with our hands? 

Fears over food safety and cross contamination are nothing new in the bulk section. Though the butcher counter and bakery department also sell foods “loose,” store employees act as intermediaries between unpackaged food and the consumer. Bulk is different: It is an entirely autonomous department, with little oversight to ensure folks aren’t digging through the granola with their bare hands. Of course, we touch produce with our bare hands, too—but customers can theoretically go home to wash, and then cook, those items.  The ready-to-eat nature of many goods in bulk—commodities like granola, nuts, and trail mix—can sit in gravity dispensers or serving bins for weeks at a time, making the section, at this moment, particularly fraught. 

In response to these concerns, many chain stores have already taken swift action. A spokesperson for Stop and Shop told The Counter it has eliminated all self-serve stations entirely. Others, like Whole Foods, are primarily targeting scoop bins (which are seen to pose the most risk for cross-contamination, as noted in my feature on the tech startups trying to re-envision bulk). Bulk Barn, a Canadian retailer that devotes a large portion of its floor space to scoop bins, now has a “customer care program” 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. 

“We need to remember there are plenty of similar risks even in packaged food.”

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, our relationship to bulk has changed profoundly. 

Not long ago, using your own containers at the grocery store—while not extremely common—was acceptable (and actually 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 public health hazard. Municipalities that once encouraged BYO bags and containers, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, have recently reversed their stance in response to the pandemic, temporarily banning citizens 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.

A distinction is now being forged between do-it-yourself, bring-your-own container programs and new circular economy solutions operated by profit-seeking third-party vendors like SmartBins, MiWa, GoBox, and even Terracycle’s widely hyped refillable grocery service, Loop. In other words, reusable containers that have been sanitized and approved for reuse by a vetted, outside vendor may pose less danger than those everyday people bring from home. 

The dangers of the specific behaviors we exhibit during grocery shopping—and in the bulk aisle, especially—will require further study.

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 (e.g. 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 really 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 in the coronavirus era? 

Filling our oceans with plastic pollution isn’t exactly sanitary either.

The uneasy answer is that we still don’t know. 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—will require further study. In the meantime, it’s hard to say how policy will develop in the face of so much fear. The global pandemic has stoked concerns lurking beneath the surface of the American psyche for over a century. 

This has thrown the anti-plastic packaging movement (in which bulk shopping plays a starring role) an enormous curveball: When health is on the line, food armored in layers of pre-packed plastic just feels safer. Yet while this development may be bad news for the bulk aisle, at least in its old-school, DIY incarnation, it may actually be an opportunity to reconfigure this section of the store to meet more modern perceptions of hygiene. After all, filling our oceans with plastic pollution isn’t exactly sanitary either. The entrepreneurs interviewed for my feature feel we may be at the beginning of a new era for bulk, with solutions that can make the section less wasteful, more efficient, and even safer—though a side effect of these changes may be that bulk becomes less affordable as well.

The pandemic is likely to alter many aspects of public life forever, and bulk shopping is no exception. “When we come out the other side,” said Catherine Conway, “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.”

Karine Vann is a freelance writer based in the Boston area who covers issues at the intersection of consumerism and the environment. She has hands-on experience in the food industry, having held positions from farming to fair trade spices. You can read more of her work at karinev.com.