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Study: Reusable grocery bags can grow E. coli

Shoppers can avoid the risk by sanitizing the bags after each trip.

By Karen Datko Jun 25, 2010 1:09PM

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Environmentally conscious consumers bring their own reusable grocery bags to the checkout line, but they may be endangering their health.

A research report by the University of Arizona at Tucson and Loma Linda University says reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health.

The research study -- which randomly tested reusable grocery bags carried by shoppers in the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, and Tucson -- also found that consumers were unaware of the need to regularly wash their bags.


"Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half the bags sampled," said study co-author Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona environmental microbiology professor. "Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags after every use."


The bacteria levels found in reusable bags were significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even lead to death -- a particular danger for young children, who are especially vulnerable to food-borne illnesses, he said.


Geographic factors also play a role, said co-author Ryan Sinclair, a professor at Loma Linda University's School of Public Health. Rates appeared to be higher in the Los Angeles area than in the two other locations -- likely due to weather being more conducive to growth of bacteria in reusable bags.


The study also found that awareness of potential risks was very low -- 97% of those interviewed had never washed or bleached their reusable bags, Gerba said. A thorough washing will kill nearly all bacteria.


Reusable-bag use increasing

More governments are banning the use of plastic shopping bags. In California, some Assembly members are trying to ban plastic bags in all California stores.


"If this is the direction California wants to go, our policymakers should be prepared to address the ramifications for public health," Sinclair said. 


The report said that "a sudden or significant increase in use of reusable bags without a major public education campaign on how to reduce cross contamination would create the risk of significant adverse public health impact."


If you use reusable bags

The report offered the following recommendations:

  • States should consider requiring printed instructions on reusable bags indicating that they need to be cleaned or bleached after every use.
  • State and local governments should invest in a public education campaign to alert the public about risk and prevention.
  • When using reusable bags, consumers should be careful to separate raw foods from other food products.
  • Consumers should not use reusable food bags for other purposes, like carrying books or gym clothes.
  • Consumers should not store reusable bags in the trunks of their cars because the higher temperature promotes growth of bacteria.

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