Researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University queried shoppers headed into grocery stores in California and Arizona, asking them if they wash those reusable bags. The researchers were likely met with a lot of blank looks. Most shoppers -- 97%, in fact -- reported that they do not regularly, if ever, wash the bags.
Further, three-fourths acknowledged that they don't use separate bags for meats and for vegetables, and about a third said they used the bags for, well, all sorts of things (storing snacks, toting books). You can see where this is going.
The researchers tested 84 of the bags for bacteria. They found whopping amounts in all but one bag, and coliform bacteria (suggesting raw-meat or uncooked-food contamination) in half. And yes, the much-feared E. coli was among them -- in 12% of the bags.
Here's the full report, Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags. And more on food-borne illness from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers wrote in their discussion of the findings:
"It is estimated that there are about 76,000,000 cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year. Most of these illnesses originate in the home from improper cooking or handling of foods. Reusable bags, if not properly washed between uses, create the potential for cross-contamination of foods. This potential exists when raw meat products and foods traditionally eaten uncooked (fruits and vegetables) are carried in the same bags, either together or between uses. This risk can be increased by the growth of bacteria in the bags."
The study, funded by the American Chemistry Council, is being offered up as context in discussions about a California bill, AB 1998, that would ban single-use plastic bags, which -- it must be acknowledged -- do tend to have little potential for bacterial contamination.
But the researchers also assessed the effectiveness of washing the bags. Way to go, researchers! Good news on that front: Machine washing or hand washing reduced bacteria levels to almost nothing.
-- Tami Dennis
Photo: Visitors to an Earth Day event in Los Angeles carry reusable tote bags. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
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