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What's Growing in Your Reusable Grocery Bags?

March 19, 2013

Washington Hospital Dietitian Warns About Bacteria that Could Make You Sick

Reusable grocery bags may be good for the environment, but they could wreak havoc on your health if you aren't careful. Bacteria and other pathogens that come from raw produce, meat, poultry, and fish can grow in them and contaminate other items that could make you sick.

"There are more than 30 known pathogens that could contaminate your food and cause food-borne illnesses," said Kim Alvari, a registered dietitian and director of Food and Nutrition Services at Washington Hospital. "If you don't wash your reusable bags, those pathogens are left to grow and multiply. Then the next time you go to the grocery store, you are putting your food into those contaminated bags."

Compounding the problem is the practice of leaving reusable bags in the car for convenience. That way you don't have to remember to bring them, but cars can get hot inside. The danger zone for food is between 41 and 135 degrees, Alvari said. Food is kept cold (below 41) to avoid the growth of dangerous pathogens and heated up to kill pathogens.

"The really dangerous zone is between 70 and 125," she explained. "Think about it, even on a cool day most cars can get above 70. So if you put raw chicken in the bag and some of the juices get on the side of the bag, within 10 hours you will have billions of bacteria cells growing inside the bag."

Another issue with reusable bags is that often shoppers try to cram too much into them because they only have a limited number.

"Now you have meat juices contaminating other foods you stuff in there," Alvari said. "People also set their bags in the cart or on the conveyer belt, which are often loaded with bacteria because they have come in contact with raw food."

According to Alvari, food-borne illnesses are already a serious problem in this country, affecting one in six people each year at an annual cost of about $77 billion. Because so many cases go unreported, that is most likely an underestimate, she added.

Alvari offered some tips for handling reusable bags that can help protect against food-borne illnesses:

  • Wash your reusable grocery bags in the washing machine frequently. If food has leaked inside the bag, be sure to wash it before you use it again.
  • If your bag has been used to carry nonfood items such as detergents, household cleaners, and other chemicals, wash it before using it to carry food. You may want to consider using different colored bags for food and nonfood items so you can keep them separated.
  • After putting your groceries away, clean the areas where the reusable bags were sitting, especially surfaces where food will be prepared or eaten like counters and tabletops.
  • Store your grocery bags away from contamination sources such as chemicals, pets, and children. Don't store them in your car if you can avoid it.
  • When you are grocery shopping, place the reusable bags on the bottom shelf of the grocery cart while you are shopping. That area is not as likely to be contaminated.
  • Use the small plastic bags provided by the store for raw produce, chicken, meat, and fish. Put each item in its own plastic bag to separate it from other food items.
  • Do not place the reusable bags on the conveyer belt at check out. Hand them to the bagger or if you are bagging them yourself, carry them to the bagging area.

"There are a lot of things to think about with reusable bags," Alvari said. "Some of the responsibility for food safety has been shifted to the consumer, so it's important to take proper care of your bags and use safe food-handling practices to prevent food-borne illnesses."

For information about programs and services at Washington Hospital that can help you stay healthy, visit www.whhs.com.

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