When Americans need to get groceries, a growing number of us have grown accustomed to grabbing a stack of reusable bags and forgoing plastic at the checkout line. Some municipalities have even banned plastic bags altogether.
And since bag bans remove plastic that would normally end up in landfills or in the stomachs of sea turtles, it’s a great idea, right?
Not so fast. Some, including a few scientists, are saying that these reusable bags are cesspools for bacteria, including the feared E. coli strain, and that bag bans send more Americans to the hospital with food poisoning. In a paper titled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness,” Jonathan Klick and Joshua D. Wright, from the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economics, point to what they say is a “46 percent increase in the deaths from foodborne illnesses” in San Francisco since the city banned the distribution of plastic bags in 2007.
The paper, published last November, summarizes research analyzing the bacterial content in a sampling of reusable grocery bags, finding high levels of E. coli and other bacteria. Then, analyzing emergency room admissions related to bacterial intestinal infections in San Francisco County since the 2007 ban, the authors found that ER admissions appeared to increase by at least 25 percent relative to other California counties.
Immediately, headlines began to pop up criticizing, or at least questioning, bans on plastic bags, and it seemed opponents of environmental causes finally had some ammunition in their camp.
But last month, epidemiologist and Health Officer for San Francisco Tomás Arágon struck back, calling the connection Klick and Wright made between the city’s bag ban and foodborne illness unfounded. He wrote that he’d received a “flurry of concerned calls” following the release of the report, so his team looked into it.
“Based on our review of this paper, and our disease surveillance and death registry data,” he wrote in a memo countering the bag ban criticism, “the Klick & Wright’s conclusion that San Francisco’s policy of banning of plastic bags has caused a significant increase in gastrointestinal bacterial infections and a ‘46 percent increase in the deaths from foodborne illnesses’ is not warranted.”
In 2010, a study funded by the American Chemistry Council (which, incidentally, makes a number of these reusable bags) discovered the presence of microbes in tests on 84 reusable grocery bags from shoppers in California and Arizona. More than half the bags contained some sort of coliform bacteria, a category that includes Escherichia coli.
What the study didn’t identify, however, were the specific strains of E. coli found in the bags, and Dr. Susan Fernyak, director of San Francisco’s Communicable Disease and Control Prevention division, believes there was never any risk of widespread, or even isolated, sickness.
“Your average healthy person is not going to get sick from the bacteria that were listed,” she told NPR.
The solution, say many, is not to repeal bag bans, but to encourage shoppers to wash their reusable bags more often. The Klick and Wright study found that 97 percent of those surveyed never wash their reusable bags.
But safety aside, do reusable bags lead to an increase in theft? One Seattle grocery store owner thinks so. Since the city banned plastic bags last summer, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he’s lost at least $5,000 in produce and between $3,000 and $4,000 in frozen food. “We’ve never lost that much before,” Duke said.
Theft may actually be a bigger problem facing the reusable bag trend than the food safety issue. The problem, say store owners, is that the reusable bags more easily conceal items thieves don’t intend to pay for. Twenty-one percent of Seattle business owners say they’ve seen increased theft since the city started banning bags, according to data released in January by Seattle Public Utilities.
Whether or not reusable bags increase food poisoning and theft, one has to think that these are growing pains for a small lifestyle change that makes a big difference to the living creatures in our oceans—and our planet as a whole.
Are you convinced by the study linking reusable bags and foodborne illness? Why or why not?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter