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What's in your shopping bag? Bacteria. (But, hey, it's natural!)

June 24, 2010 | 10:20 am

Shopping bags Way to go, all you planet-saving shoppers who've made the switch to reusable bags! But consider: "Reusable" doesn't mean "self-cleaning." 

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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Comments (52)



You would have to meet 33 people in the supermarket with reusable bags before you would even know one that washed their bag!


"Doesn't use of water and detergents to wash the reusable bag negate the environmental benefits of using the bags?"

I hate this argument. Yes, using a small amount of water is worse than using oil and manufacturing tools and energy to make (and ship!) bags that end up in landfills. (sarcasm)

Most people wash and/or cook their food before eating it. This seems to be trying to create a problem out of nowhere.

So, the next phase of this study would be to compare the energy involved in the manufacture of the single use bags to the energy (and water) consumed in washing the reusable bags (assumed on a weekly basis). Don't forget the materials used in the manufacture of the detergent and its impact on the environment as well. I'll bet the result is that single use plastic bags are (1) more cost effective (2) less damaging to the environment in terms of consumption of water and natural resources in their production and maintenence and (3) produce FAR less health risk.

What a bunch of idiots all those that are advocating for single use plastic bags. It is likely that there will be bacteria independent of what type of bag you use. Just think about all the opportunities for contamination packaging, transportation, customer and staff handling, shopping carts, handling by cashier (as I know they don't use gloves and change them when handling meat, cash, etc). Also you will need to ban the placing of handbags at the the conveyor belt while paying. Any idea on the amount of bacteria in the average handbag.

The key is common sense Wash food, wash hands before food preparation and keep a clean kitchen. Finally, let's try to prevent pollution by using reusable bags.

I loved how KCAL anchor man David Gonzales put it "'s food for thought... WASH your bags."

But seriously, people, wash your re-usables, I do, toss them into the washing machine along with you jeans. Or handwash, nice hot water and soap. No biggie, you burn calories too.

It should be noted though, that this bacteria buildup is not just the shoppers fault for being so nasty about their stuff but also SUPERMARKETs.

Whether Vons, Ralphs, Food For Less, Trader Joe's or other status markets like Pavilions and Gelson's as well as your neighborhood carniceria's are also at fault here.

Have you ever walked into a large big name super market only to be disgusted at their carts and baskets? I mean, I don't put my food on that upper baby chair part at all, I don't know what kind of stuff was left behind.

And wipes they have by the entrances don't necessarily work fully because some of those after midnight food stockers sure do smell of BO and look like they don't clean their hands after using those awful supermarket restrooms either.

For once, I'd love to see Ralphs for example, just really give all those shopping carts a weekly or bi-weekly, or monthly acidic wash to clean them up, wash them down. But they don't so, its not entirely the consumers fault here.

Single use plastic bags are an extreme nuisance and are found everywhere. Have you heard about the garbage patches that are now growing in our oceans? Haven't you seen those bags floating just about everywhere?

The reusable bags laundry is far less destructive to the environment than the single use bags, though far less profitable to the plastic manufacturers.

As far as bacteria are concerned, we get such "studies" about bacteria on a regular basis - isn't money full of bacteria as well? When you want to manufacture news, search for bacteria on anything and voila! News.

I'm confused...don't people wash the produce they buy? What's in the bag seems irrelevant compared to handling by a cashier who's constantly touching money, a bagger who just wiped his nose or returned from the restroom, and any number of people who touched it before it hit the shelf. You can put the food in the (somewhat) sterile environment of a new plastic bag, but it's already disgusting anyway.
And to the person who mentioned kids' shoes being in the carts...right on. Dear produce, say hello to the assortment of human/animal urine and fecal matter from across town!

If I don't get my free, convenient bags that I re-use around the house, I certainly won't be filling my car with extra crap (reusable bags). I won't be able to shop for more than what I can carry out in my hands or a single bag, meaning I will have to make many, many more car trips to the market to buy my groceries. All that C02 being spewed needlessly because of this idiot law. This law has nothing to do with eliminating plastic bags. It's about opening up a new revenue stream under the guise of saving the environment.

What nonsense.

HAHAHAHAH! take that morons who bring in reusable shopping bags

Plastic Bags are the least of our environmental problems. Anyway, I happen to be frugal and recycle my plastic bags by taking out the trash in them. Its a perfect system, each bag gets used at least twice. Bring the food in, Take the trash out. If people just would use smaller trash bins, stop buying plastic bags just made for trash alone, and recycled their store plastic bags, that would also reduce the demand for plastic.

Mostly, the environmentalists go too far in trying to "Roll Back" the clock on consumer goods and stores like WalMart and Target which are really designed for convenience and efficiency. Everything we buy to make our homes cleaner and our health safer is a product of INNOVATION, not necessarily rampant waste.

In this economy, most people aren't buying crap just to do it, its necessary for a MODERN lifestyle based on cleanliness and preservation of health. I'm sick of the hippies trying to get everyone to go live in a cave. There's plenty of space in the mid-west, go camping if you care so much. But leave the cityfolk alone with our plastic bags. I don't want your bacteria-laden Greenie bags anywhere near my food.

good thing we banned plastic bags!

How about just not buying disgusting factory-farmed meat?

I refuse to use reusable bags. I will rather pay 5c per bag than use one of those reusable ones. I am anti- environmentalist.

Uh, there's also bacteria in the plastic grocery bags.

So there.

How amusing that some people are actually agreeing with this "study" from the plastics industry and believe that we're better off continuing to use disposable plastic bags. How foolish. The amount of water it takes to clean cloth bags is negligible compared to the waste and environmental damage from disposable plastic bags.

If you think what you bag your groceries with is the last thing these nanny state nutjobs will have an opinion about, think again. You need to be controlled. You are making wrong choices in the foods you eat, what you drive, what you wear and what you say. You need to be educated. You are a threat to the environment and the environment is more important than you, your family or your job.

If you're that concerned - just leave your bag inside out in the Sun for a couple of rays. The Sun's UV rays will kill the bacteria.

The Sun is a natural sanitizer.

... and: prohibit disposable plastic bags!

Mike, that's awesome! So, I can bring over the 8 quarts of used oil from my recent oil changes (I do my own) and dump them in your yard? I mean to pour the oil out of course, so I can reuse my container...

I have said it a thousand times... why don't we just enforce the litter laws we have? Fine idiots who fling plastic bags out in the street, whoever they are. I use my plastic bags for trash can liners, to clean my pet's litter pan, etc and *then it goes in the recycle bin*. What on earth is wrong with that? As an apartment dweller, who must lug groceries up three flights of stairs, the plastic bags are much easier for me to carry. I refuse to shop at my local Von's Market, who only offers paper bags, because they rip and it is not fun to chase after the groceries that spill down the stairs. I drive further (waste of gas + more pollution) so I can go to a store that DOES have plastic! And I am sorry, I have enough to do already without washing grocery bags. Perhaps the enviro-nannies have maids to do this for them but I just dont need any more work. I do plenty of other things to support the environment (vegetarian, recycle) but this mandate I will resist with all my might. I am sick of this state telling me what to do and what not to do--meanwhile, they can't get their own house in order.

Your SHOPPING CART is dirtier than a reusable bag.

A diapered baby sits in the rack, dirty hands grasp the handles, and leaky meats go in the cart itself.

The ONLY safe handling, is when you get home. But most home kitchens wouldn't pass a rudimentary restaurant inspection.

Can anyone explain to me how E.coli ends up in these bags in the first place? When I buy any sort of meat product at the store, it is in a package that is well sealed. The same goes for produce, as they are put into their own bags. As with any produce, you need to wash it off before eating. All other food items are in their own packages as well. If anything ever spills into the bag, then of course you need to wash it. But, I can't honestly think of one occasion when this has happened.



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