Gross Grocery Bags: Reusable Totes Harbor Bacteria that Can Make You Sick

Are your eco-friendly grocery bags a health threat?
Are your eco-friendly grocery bags a health threat?

By Deborah Wilburn

You're trying to do your bit to save the planet by using eco-friendly grocery bags. But if those reusable bags aren't cleaned frequently and properly, you may be putting your family's health at risk for contracting nasty foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella, listeria, and E.coli O157:H7.

A new survey shows that only 15% of Americans regularly wash their reusable grocery bags, according to the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods. Dirty grocery bags create a breeding zone for harmful bacteria that can contaminate your food. Each year, 48 million Americans contract food poisoning from contaminated foods.

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So how can your reusable grocery bags make your family sick? "The pathogens on meat and poultry are easily spread because many people, trying to be eco friendly, don't use plastic bags for their vegetables," says Pat Kendall, PhD, RD, associate dean for research at Colorado State University's College of Applied Human Sciences. "Those plastic bags in the produce section are there for sanitary reasons." Instead, fruits and veggies get thrown into the grocery cart, which harbors its own germs, then packed into a reusable grocery bag along with the meat and poultry.

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It's not just a question of blood or other liquids leaking out of the meat or poultry packaging. "E.coli may live on the meat packaging itself, given the way it's handled when it's prepared and wrapped," says Kendall. The pathogens form a biofilm -- a protective covering for a group of bacteria that can survive in a fairly arid climate -- like your reusable grocery bag.

Symptoms of food poisoning include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting, and can last from four to seven days. If listeria gets into the bloodstream, it can lead to meningitis, a life-threatening bacterial infection. Up to 20% of people with compromised immune systems die from food poisoning.

How can you be eco friendly and keep your groceries safe? For starters, use the plastic bags in the produce section to protect your fruits and veggies. Also put meat and poultry packages in plastic bags to contain any juices that might leak. Keep produce separate from meats and poultry in your grocery cart. When you're checking out, have two totes handy -- one for fruits and veggies and the other for uncooked meat and poultry. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has these guidelines:

  • Wash totes frequently, either in the washing machine or by hand with hot, soapy water.

  • Keep areas where you place the totes, such as kitchen countertops, clean. To kill the bacteria on counters, spray the surface with an antimicrobial cleaner, such as a commercial cleanser or diluted bleach (½ teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water). Wipe the surface clean with a paper towel.

  • Store totes in a clean, dry place, and avoid leaving empty totes in the trunk of your car.

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