When I remember to carry my reusable grocery bags into the store, I feel pretty pleased with myself that I am helping to save the planet in my little way. But am I adding bacteria and dangerous germs to my shopping list?
There are bacteria in those reusable bags.
Studies reported in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times newspapers and National Public Radio found bacteria in many of the reusable grocery bags. “Nearly every bag examined for bacteria by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found whopping amounts of bugs. Coliform bacteria, suggesting raw-meat or uncooked-food contamination, was in half of the bags, and E. coli was found in 12 percent of the bags.”
It should be noted that the study was funded by the American Chemistry Council, an organization which is opposed to the California bill that would ban the single use plastic bags. That bill has passed the California Assembly, and if the Senate approves it, Gov. Schwarzenegger is expected to sign it. However, regardless of the motives of the group paying for the study, the results were the same in a study in Toronto, Canada two years ago. The fact is that the reusable grocery bags are not clean.
Where are the bacteria coming from?
Even used correctly, for carrying home food from the grocery store, bacteria can build up in the bags. Meat that is not properly sealed can cause small leaks. The shopper who is very careful about keeping meat clean, chopping boards separate, and the kitchen spotless, will often plop the grocery bags down on the counter, and empty out the mix of meat, fruit, and other food.
First, the bags have been sitting in the car and handled in the store, and the outside is not clean enough to put it on the counter. Remember to wipe down the counter after unloading your groceries. Second, the stuff inside the bags has left residue from cans, bottles, and packages as well as from fruit and meat. We wash fruit and fresh vegetables before eating, but remember that the food has been sitting in the bags.
Most people will leave the reusable bags in the car, or in the trunk of the car, so they are there when needed for shopping. That means they are also right there and convenient when something else needs carrying, such as damp swimsuits, gym clothes, books, or other stuff from the car to the house. While you would not put your sweaty clothes in with your food, you are doing just that if you use the same bag for carrying them.
How serious is this problem?
Most studies show that the bacteria in the bags tested are of varieties which are not dangerous and are not there in sufficient numbers to cause illness in healthy people. Molds and yeasts have been found in the bags tested, but also not in amounts that are considered risky for healthy people. However, it has been suggested that some illnesses may have been caused by these contaminants, but they have not been reported, and the source has not been determined. Should you be worried about these reusable bags? Probably not, but you should certainly be taking some steps to be avoid problems.
What should you do about it?
First of all, take all the bags you have been carting around and wash them. Many of the bags can be run through the washing machine, but they can just as easily be washed and rinsed in the kitchen sink when you finish unpacking them. If you are using a reusable bag which is ruined by washing, it is no loss, as if it can’t be washed, it is not practical to use for food. If the bag won’t hold up to washing, replace it with one that will.
Don’t panic. For most people, the number of germs and bacteria they are exposed to this way will be insignificant. However, for those with compromised immune systems it is important to keep all exposure to a minimum. Just get in the habit of washing and rinsing the bags as a routine.
Put fresh meat and anything questionable in a plastic bag when you are shopping. Don’t feel guilty about that one plastic bag. Keep your reusable bag for those things which are packaged, or will be washed before using.
Keep your food bags for food. If you need a diaper bag, gym bag, or anything else, get a separate bag to keep in your car.
Buy or make bags which are easy to wash. A simple bag with handles is an easy thing to make out of some old clothes or some scrap material. It doesn’t have to be the fancy bag with pleats to make it stand up nicely.
The photo with this article shows a nice roomy nylon bag which would be easy to make, and is easy to wash and dry. It rolls into a very small and very light little package, which can be carried in even a small purse. I carry one in my purse, and have used them for souvenirs, books and notepaper, pencils, and pens, and food. As soon as this article is posted, I intend to wash them both, along with the reusable grocery bags from the car, and I suggest you do the same.
Sources: Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, American Chemistry Council, National Public Radio.