A Guide to Safe Reusable Grocery Bag Use

Grocery BagEnvironmental consciousness and municipal “bag taxes” are curtailing consumer use of new plastic and paper shopping bags in many areas of the US. Consumers, myself included, are getting better at remembering to “BYOB”—“Bring Your Own Bag”—to the marketplace. In my view, this paradigm shift in American shopping is positive from the perspective of resource conservation. However, as a consumer advocate concerned about food safety, a word to the wise is in order:

Wash Reusable Bags: Reusable shopping bags are only as clean as the items with which we fill them.  In a 2010 study by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, and supported by the American Chemistry Council, reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores.  The researchers found “large numbers of bacteria in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half.” They learned from interviews that “reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes.”

To help reduce cross-contamination and the risk of foodborne illness, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend cleaning reusable grocery bags regularly.  USDA suggests canvas and cloth bags be washed in the washing machine; plastic reusable bags can be washed by hand with hot, soapy water.  The researchers found bag washing reduces bacteria by more than 99.9 percent.

Separate Foods in Bagging:  At the check-out, consumers can request that clerks bag raw meats, poultry and fish separately from ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination. In addition, most clerks will place these items in plastic bags before packing.  If not, ask for it.  According to the USDA dietary guidelines, raw meats, poultry and fish should be kept separate from ready-to-eat foods all along the path from the grocery cart to the consumer dinner table.  One way to accomplish this in grocery bagging is to designate specific reusable bags for raw meats, poultry or fish and only fill them with those products. You may also wish to designate separate bags for raw fruits and vegetables.  Put fresh fruit and vegetables in plastic produce bags at the grocery store to ensure an impervious separation between produce and the cloth bag.  Finally, I keep a few lightweight fabric bags handy (rolled up in my purse works for me) to use for non-food purchases, such as drug store items.

Don’t Store Reusable Bags in the Trunk of Your Car: It might be the most convenient place to store bags for trips to the grocery store, but the trunk of the car is actually one of the worst storage places. The dark, warm (sometimes humid, depending on the region of the country in which you live) environment of the car trunk incubates “bag bacteria,” rasing the risk of foodborne illness.  The researchers found a tenfold increase in bacteria in reused bags to which meat juice was added followed by a two-hour storage period in a car trunk.  Ideally, store your reusable grocery bags in your home in a dry environment with good air circulation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year 48 million people, or one in six Americans, contract foodborne illnesses; 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die as a result of unsafe foods. Greater public education is needed to avoid adding to these statistics as a result of improper grocery bag reuse.

Linda Golodner is President Emeritus of the National Consumers League and Vice Chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.