March 9, 2020 / 7:45 PM / 21 days ago

Wary of coronavirus, U.S. shoppers skip the fresh produce aisle

LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fearful of coronavirus and potential quarantine, U.S. shoppers are avoiding touching fresh fruits and vegetables in grocery stores and stocking their pantries with pretzels, powered milk, canned meat and other packaged food.

FILE PHOTO: People wearing masks are seen leaving the grocery store as voters cast their ballot in the Democratic primary election at a polling station in Houston, Texas, U.S. March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare/File Photo

“People are getting supplies for a bomb shelter almost,” said Victor Colello, who heads the meat and fish department at New York-based Morton Williams, which operates 16 stores. “When people buy produce, they touch it. So a lot of people are thinking twice about doing that.”

Sales of celery, asparagus, chili peppers, apples and mandarins slowed in the last two weeks of February, while purchases of easily stored products that are not handled by humans - like dried beans and canned meat - grew at a faster pace.

Powdered milk sales jumped about 84% in the week ended Feb. 29, racing ahead of a 5% increase the week earlier, according to data firm Nielsen. Similarly sales of papayas fell 15.6% year-on-year, declining at a much faster rate than the week prior when sales were down only 1.4%.

At Fairway market in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, shelves normally filled with prewashed lettuce sold in plastic containers were bare on Sunday morning. By contrast, there was plenty of loose lettuce for purchase.

In a conversation on Twitter, user @rexthetvterrier wrote: “Nothing like seeing someone cough into their hand and then start picking through produce.”

“I won’t buy produce,” Twitter user @Tbevellrice replied. “We are doing canned or frozen veggies, canned soups, bagged rice, etc.”

About 3,800 people have died so far and more than 110,000 people have been infected in the outbreak, which originated in Wuhan, China late last year and has spread to at least 105 countries and territories.

Over the past month, U.S. consumers have stocked up on food, bottled water, hand sanitizer and cleaning products as fears about the novel coronavirus outbreak mounted. In some states, health officials have urged consumers to stock up on products in case they are required to isolate themselves at home.

“Shopping trends are mimicking what we see leading up to a weather event. Customers are stocking up on paper products and a variety of food items, particularly those with a longer shelf life,” Wegmans director of public relations Deana Percassi said. More people are shopping for their groceries online as well, and that demand is expected to continue, Percassi said.

People are not just preparing for the uncertainty of the virus, they are also trying to get ahead of other shoppers doing the same, Nielsen Global Intelligence Leader Scott McKenzie said. Fruit snacks, for instance, have flavors similar to fresh fruit but their processing gives them longer shelf life with less direct human contact, McKenzie said.

Health-conscious consumers have for several years turned away from products like pretzels and dried beans, gutting sales at companies like SPAM maker Hormel Foods and Coffee Mate-owner Nestle. But they are now selling well.

Bernstein analyst Alexia Howard said, however, that this growth may not last for long, and that she did not yet expect this to materially impact full-year sales.

Reporting by Richa Naidu in London and Melissa Fares in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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