It is estimated that each year 48 million Americans are affected by food poisoning caused by food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. It is thought that most food-borne illnesses originate in food prepared or consumed in the home. I’m sure most of us wouldn’t think of causing such harm to family members and would take steps to prevent it if we knew how.
Cross-contamination of foods during handling is one of the factors that leads to food-borne illnesses. This occurs when microorganisms that cause disease are transferred from one food to another. Raw meats are often contaminated with food-borne bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. When these foods are cooked the bacteria usually are destroyed, but transfer can occur on surfaces such as cutting boards, kitchen countertops and hands. Reusable grocery bags, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, are used multiple times for various purposes and also carry the potential and possibility for contamination of food products.
In 2010 the University of Arizona looked at the potential for cross-contamination of food products by reusable shopping bags. They randomly collected reusable bags from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. They interviewed the owners and found that the bags were seldom, if ever, washed and most people aren’t particular about what they put in each bag. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all of the bags and half of the bags contained the bacteria coliform. E. coli were identified in 12 percent of the bags and also a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens.
Few people were found to separate their vegetables and raw meat into different bags, and most stored their bags in the trunk of their vehicle. Bacteria in bags to which meat juices were added grew within two hours of storage. The number of bacteria increased tenfold when the trunk temperature was 47 degrees Celsius.
Food poisoning from reusable bags can be prevented. When shopping, separate your ready-to-eat foods from raw meats in separate bags. Label grocery store bags — one for meat, produce, dairy, cleaning supplies, etc. Be sure to double bag any items that may leak. Use these bags only for groceries and don’t leave unwashed bags in your car. The temperature is ripe for incubation of bacteria. Instead, wash the bags and then return them to your car.
How to launder reusable bags
Some bags have labels with instructions on how to launder. For those that don’t, such as woven canvas bags, wash in hot water with your usual detergent. These can be line dried or put into the dryer.
For bags that are made of composite man-made fibers such as the nonwoven polypropylene and recycled PET, hand wash or launder on the gentle cycle. Turn them inside out and pay special attention to the corners around the seams. Don’t put these bags in the dryer. Allow them to air dry. Nylon bags can be laundered the same way. You also can wipe them down with a bleach mixture.
By knowing the potential for cross-contamination and taking a few extra steps to help prevent a problem, you can protect yourself and your family and the environment by using reusable bags. Something to feel good about.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.