DANGER! Dirty recyclable bags can make you sick!

By , on April 17, 2013


With today’s ever-increasing and timely trend towards eco-awareness, more and more people are exerting effort to do their part towards protecting the earth and conserving its resources.

Perhaps one of the most basic changes that most have adapted to their lifestyles in order to reduce their carbon footprint is the use of recyclable, eco-friendly grocery bags. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but you must remember to clean your re-usable totes regularly and thoroughly so as to avoid food contamination.

Studies have shown that failure to clean your recyclable bags puts you and your family at increased risk of acquiring food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, listeria, and E.coli O157:H7.

A recent survey conducted by the Home Safety Program (a joint effort between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods in America) revealed that only a small percentage of Americans pay attention to regularly reusable totes. According to the survey, this number is at a mere 15%.

Statistics show that 48 million Americans annually contract food poisoning from contaminated foods.  The use of unwashed or dirty reusable bags for grocery shopping can very well contribute to this situation, as these can become the breeding grounds for harmful bacteria that can contaminate your food.

Medical experts say that the contamination may occur when bacteria or micro-organisms that may naturally be on meat and poultry transfer to vegetables and produce that are thrown into the recyclable bag, along with the meat and poultry.

Doctors advise that all fresh produce and veggies be placed in the plastic bags available at the produce section before you place them in your shopping cart (as the cart itself is abundant with its own germs), and—ultimately—in your recyclable bag.

“Those plastic bags in the produce section are there for sanitary reasons,” says Pat Kendall, PhD, RD, associate dean for research at Colorado State University’s College of Applied Human Sciences.

Even if your meat and poultry are packed in plastic, blood and other fluids may still leak out of the packaging. Furthermore, Dr. Kendall says that “E.coli may live on the meat packaging itself, given the way it’s handled when it’s prepared and wrapped.” The bacteria form a biofilm – a protective covering which thereby allows the bacteria to survive even in dry conditions—and continue to breed in other surroundings, like inside your reusable bag.

These bacteria when ingested through improperly washed produce and veggies, and as a result of cross-contamination, can lead to food poisoning.

Food poisoning manifests with symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting, which can last anywhere from 4-7 days. The listeria bacterium is particularly dangerous if it enters the bloodstream, as it can lead to sepsis, meningitis, and encephalitis.

Here are some essential and helpful tips towards being eco-friendly AND keeping your groceries safe from contamination:

  • Pack your fresh fruits and veggies in the plastic bags provided in the produce section.  This will protect them from contamination.
  • Whenever possible, put meat and poultry packages in plastic bags as well so as to prevent any blood or juices from leaking out of the packaging.
  • Arrange fresh produce/ veggies in a separate section from meat and poultry in your grocery cart.
  • When checking out, use separate tote bags for produce and meat/poultry.  Always carry at least 2 recyclable bags with you.

As for keeping your recyclable bags clean and bacteria-free, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises you to follow these simple tips:

  • Wash totes frequently, either in the washing machine or by hand with hot, soapy water.
  • Keep areas where you place the totes, such as kitchen counters, clean. To kill the bacteria on counters, spray the surface with an antimicrobial cleaner, such as a commercial cleanser or diluted bleach (½ teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water). Wipe the surface clean with a paper towel.
  • Store totes in a clean, dry place, and avoid leaving empty totes in the trunk of your car.