Reusable grocery bags: Good for the planet, risky for your health?

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    Reusable grocery bag

    Researchers involved with the study tested 84 reusable shopping bags for bacteria. Eighty-three bags tested positive for alarming amounts, with bacteria specific to uncooked meat found in half and E.coli bacteria found in 12 percent.

    It turns out reusable grocery bags, while good for the environment, may not be very beneficial when it comes to individual health.

    According to a recent study funded by the American Chemistry Council, 97 percent of people using reusable grocery bags do not wash them regularly—if ever.  That lack of sanitation results in a dangerous mixture of bacteria scientists say may contribute to cross contamination of food.

    Bacteria in reusable grocery bags

    “Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled,” said in a statement Charles Gerba, a UA professor of soil, water and environmental science and co-author of the study. “Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags on a weekly basis.”

    According to the Los Angeles Times, researchers involved with the study tested 84 reusable grocery bags for bacteria. Eighty-three bags tested positive for alarming amounts, with bacteria specific to uncooked meat found in half and E.coli bacteria found in 12 percent.

    Experts also caution location appeared to have an effect on bacteria growth in the reusable grocery bags, with certain regions’ weather promoting better bacterial growth than others.

    The study was conducted in response to a law proposal in California encouraging consumers to use more reusable grocery bags than plastic ones. According to researchers, if such a law were to pass, officials would need to be prepared to address issues relating to public health.

    “As scientists, our focus was not on the relative merits of paper, plastic or reusable grocery bags,” Gerba said. “Our intent was purely to provide relevant data to better inform consumers and lawmakers about the public health dimensions that could arise from increased use of reusable bags. With this knowledge, people will be in a better position to protect their health and that of their children.”

    Don’t get discouraged, just follow hygiene protocol

    reusable grocery bags

    E.coli bacteria was found in 12 percent of unwashed bags. (Shutterstock photo)

    For those individuals still looking to save the environment through the use of reusable grocery bags, researchers suggest the following tips to prevent bacterial contamination:

    • Do not place meat or produce in a reusable grocery bag in the trunk of a car as the warmth promotes bacterial growth.
    • Keep raw foods separate from other food items when using reusable grocery bags.
    • Do not use reusable grocery bags for other purposes such as carrying clothes, books, or other nonfood items.
    • Reusable grocery bags should be cleaned manually or in the washing machine, or bleached between uses, even if you think you did not carry anything that could promote contamination.

    “It is estimated that there are about 76,000,000 cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year,” stated the study. “Most of these illnesses originate in the home from improper cooking or handling of foods. Reusable bags, if not properly washed between uses, create the potential for cross-contamination of foods.”


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