Reusable grocery bags may carry more than groceries

SILVER SPRING – Reusable grocery bags may be good for the environment, but they could be making you sick.

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A study conducted by an Arizona State University professor found that reusable bags can harbor harmful bacteria if groceries are not handled carefully.

With Montgomery County set to impose a nickel tax on disposable grocery bags that’s designed to discourage their use, a new study has found that intestinal bacteria like E. coli flourish in unwashed reusable bags.

The study, published in the latest issue of the International Association for Food Protection’s Food Protection Trends magazine, tested 87 reusable bags obtained at random from shoppers in California and Arizona.

Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona who conducted the study, found that eight percent contained E. coli, among other harmful food-borne pathogens.

Putting a reusable bag through the wash can eliminate almost 100 percent of the bacteria. But the study found that only 3 percent of shoppers surveyed had washed their reusable bags between uses.

Interviews with shoppers strolling through area grocery stores this week found that not everyone takes steps to decontaminate the reusable bags.

Shopping at the Whole Foods Market in Silver Spring, Lauren Simms of Takoma Park said that even if she knew bacteria could be growing, she wouldn’t wash her reusable bags.

“I’m pretty low-maintenance,” said Simms, who puts only pre-wrapped items in her bags.

Other precautions that can eliminate health risks include packing raw meats separately from fruits and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination and not storing reusable bags in the trunk of the car where high temperatures increase bacteria growth.

The bag study found that when reusable bags contaminated with meat juice were left in a trunk for two hours, the number of bacteria grew tenfold.

Some people said they separate meat from other groceries when using reusable bags.

“I don’t like my meat to touch my other stuff,” Robyn Nguyen, of Silver Spring, said while shopping at Whole Foods in Silver Spring.
Nguyen said that bacteria are a concern. She will not pack her meat in reusable bags with her other food; she packs it separately — in plastic grocery bags.

Kay Why, of Silver Spring, said that although she buys reusable bags, she doesn’t keep them for long.

“When I feel that it’s a little gross, I throw them out and buy new,” Why said.

Instead of throwing them out, Natalie Slater, a spokesperson for Reuse It, a company dedicated to selling reusable items, said shoppers should take the time to wash them.

“Cleanliness is no excuse for not using disposable bags. Simply throw your bags in with your clothes,” Slater said.

by Richelle Gonzalez
Capital News Service

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