Cloth grocery bags are more environmentally friendly, but are there potential sanitary issues with reusable cloth grocery bags?
As you might guess, any time you reuse something related to food, the risk of cross-contamination is present.
The Canadian Environment and Plastics Industry commissioned a study to determine the presence of bacteria, yeasts and moulds in reusable grocery bags. The researchers noted that nearly two-thirds of the bags were contaminated with some type of germ. About 30 per cent of the bags had unsafe levels of bacteria, which could promote foodborne illness. About 40 per cent harboured moulds and yeast that could trigger allergic reactions and infections.
According to the researchers, reusable cloth bags could be contaminated by meat juices. The moist environment of a cloth bag after hauling fresh fruits, vegetables or frozen foods can be conducive to the growth of a variety of germs.
Knowing these potential contamination issues has prompted a couple of actions in my house. The red cloth bags are designated as “meat bags,” and other foods are not placed in the meat bags. Some companies sell several sets of bags in different colours so you can designate different bag colours for different foods.
I haven’t completely given up plastic bags at the grocery store, though. To avoid cross-contamination, I put meat in a small plastic bag and then I place the meat at the lower level of the grocery cart, away from fresh produce. Finally, the meat goes in the red cloth bag on the way home.
I separate the types of meat from each other, too. For example, red meat goes in one plastic bag, while poultry goes in another bag. I have a reason for doing this. Different types of meat are cooked to different temperatures for quality and safety. Ground beef, for example, is cooked to 71.1C (160F) while chicken is cooked to 73.8C (165F).
Also, think about where you set your grocery bags. Do they ever spend time on the ground in the parking lot while you open your trunk? When you retrieve your bags, do you set them on your garage floor?
If you set your grocery bags on a dirty surface and then on your kitchen counter, you could be adding some extra “ingredients” to your next menu. If you place your bags on the kitchen counter or table, be sure to wash these surfaces thoroughly before preparing or serving food.
To keep your food safe and be “green” at the same time, launder reusable cloth bags regularly.
Sometimes fresh produce can dampen the insides of bags. Since germs thrive in a moist environment, don’t be a friendly “host.” Be sure to let reusable cloth bags dry thoroughly before you store them.
– Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, L. R. D., is a North Dakota State
University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
and associate professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.