Reusable Shopping Bags Could Be Making You Sick
If you never go shopping without reusable grocery bags, props to you – you're cutting down on waste, helping the environment and saving a some nickels (if you live in a city that charges for bags). But, if you're not washing those bags regularly, you could be putting yourself at risk for food-borne illness.
Recent updates to the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency guidelines reignited worries about reusable bags, and after looking into studies on what's inside those bags, we're pretty disgusted.
An assessment of the bacteria in grocery bags, led by University of Arizona and Loma Linda University researchers, found that almost all of the reusable bags randomly selected from customers entering a grocery store contained large amounts of bacteria. Nearly half contained coliform bacteria and 12% contained E. Coli.
The researchers also looked at what happened when meat juices were added to the bag and left in a car for two hours. While common sense tells you leaving meat in the car isn't a good idea, sometimes situations occur where you can't get home quickly after grocery shopping. Bad move – the bacteria in the bags grew tenfold in those two hours, showing how quickly bacteria can form.
This isn't to say you should ditch reusable bags altogether, but it would help to be more intentional about how you use them. In interviews, researchers of the same study found that most people seldom, if ever, washed their reusable bags – problem number one. When washed, either by machine or by hand, the amount of bacteria was reduced by more than 99.9 percent (!!).
The second problem that puts consumers at risk for food-borne illness is not separating groceries. In both the U.K.'s guidelines and the United States' FoodSafety.gov guidelines, which have been posted since 2012, it is recommended that you separate foods by meats, fresh produce, and household/dry items.
Yes, this means feeling slightly annoying and asking your grocer to bag your items differently than they usually do, but it makes cross-contamination much less likely. To make it easier, you could label your bags, or assign each food category a different color (red for meat, green for produce, etc.).
The U.S. Food Safety website, which is updated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the FDA, and the CDC, also recommends the following precautions:
- Wrap raw meat packages in a separate, disposable plastic bag, and throw out the bag as soon as you get home.
- Don't use reusable grocery bags to carry anything other than groceries (a.k.a., don't make your grocery bag your gym bag, too).
- Avoid storing reusable bags in the car or another hot place, as bacteria spreads more quickly here; store in a cool, dry place instead.
The Good Housekeeping Institute also recommends following these guidelines for cleaning your reusable bags:
- Canvas bags: Just toss them in the washing machine and launder in hot water with detergent. Then, run them through the dryer.
- Recycled plastic bags: You should wash anything made from recycled plastic containers (a.k.a. polypropylene bags) by hand in warm soapy water and line dry it. Don't forget about the inner and outer seams, where crud can hide and collect.
- Insulated shopping bags: Since you're probably transporting raw meat in these bags, wipe them with a disinfecting wipe after each use.
- Nylon bags: Flip them inside out and wash them by hand in warm soapy water. If you prefer to machine wash them, use the gentlest cycle to prevent the bag from coming apart. Then, allow them to air dry.