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Are Reusable Bags Bacteria Breeding Grounds?: The Plastic Industry Takes Aim
Are reusable bags really dangerous? Well, probably not - but the plastics industry is fighting to ensure that you reconsider your decision to use cloth or other reusable bags.
A recent study done by two independent research labs came to the conclusion that reusable bags are havens for bacteria, yeasts and mold. It turns out that as many as 64 per cent of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria. In addition, lab researchers said that almost 30 per cent of reusable grocery bags had elevated bacterial counts higher than what's considered safe for drinking water.
A Better Perspective On The Study
The study may have been done by "independent" labs, but the sponsor of the study is definitely biased. Funding was provided by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), which is a committee within the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Obviously, if the consumer starts to turn against the use of plastic, this puts the plastic industry under a lot of pressure.
Of course, the interpretation of the results further sensationalized the results. Sporometrics research director Dr Richard Summerbell pointed the finger at reusable bags and said that they could be responsible for a host of potential medical ills: food poisoning, skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections.
None of this has been proved in the real world: Summerbell's conclusions are hypothetical and depend on people using less than completely hygienic practices with the food they bring home and with the bags themselves. There is no indication in media reports of what the likelihood of any of the potential medical complications are. In fact, the majority of the potential contaminants cited, from bacteria to molds and yeast, are all commonly present in the human body in the first place.
Since the worst of the bacteria and contamination are in the bottom and seams of the reusable bags, I have to wonder: would it take running your fingers along the seam of the bag and then putting them in your ears (without any hand washing in between) for you to end up with an ear infection? As for skin infections, for the vast majority of us with normal immune systems, would you actually need broken skin that you rubbed a contaminated bag over?
My question is: Are we really at that much risk?
Make Your Own Washable Cloth Bag
Check out this great article with step-by-step instructions on how to make your own reusable bag!
Healthy Use Of Any Reusable Bag Or Container
The media have taken the much-quoted study and vaulted the hazards of reusable bags squarely into the public consciousness. But little has been said about the very simple procedures that ensure healthy use of reusable bags.
The obvious point is that cloth bags should be washed periodically. In fact, if you treat your reusable bags the same way that you treat your clothing, you will be on the right track.
- If the bag has been subjected to a spill or leak from foods of various kinds, it should be washed immediately before using it again. (You wouldn't wear your favorite shirt again if it had spaghetti sauce on the front unless you washed it, right?)
- Bags should be stored wisely. Preferred ways to store would include containers that allow some air flow and will keep bags safe from moisture. This is not a surprise: the world is not a microbe-free zone, and anything that is left damp will provide a breeding ground for bacteria.(It's the same deal with clothing. If you put summer clothes away for the winter, you don't put them away damp unless you want to find mold stains on them in the spring.)
- Regular washing and drying is all we need for clean clothes. It's also sufficient for clean bags. Water is the best cleaner and soap simply helps it to hold dirt better. If you are worried about a deodorized bag, add some vinegar to your rinse or baking soda to the wash. So, if you wouldn't wear the same outfit for more than a couple of times without washing, then the same applies to your reusable bags.
- Always follow any washing instructions provided with the bag. Obviously, with the wrong washing approach, your reusable bag might not be reusable anymore.
Let's not lose our way because of a single study. We don't have single use clothing - and we don't need single use plastic bags either.
Avoid Food Borne Illness
The real issue with food safety is how we handle our food, rather than the reusable bag that we bring it home in. The same good habits that help you avoid food poisoning will also ensure that any food that you prepare will be safe to eat:
- When you are ready to eat or prepare food items, wash them first! After all, you would do this whether you took the food home in plastic bags or not. This simple practice will generally remove any contamination from the surface of your produce so that you can eat healthfully.
- Wash hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils thoroughly
before and after handling raw foods. This will help to prevent bacteria contamination of cooked foods - and will keep bacteria counts down in the kitchen! (Check out my article for more tips on a bacteria - free kitchen without chemicals.)
- Keep refrigerated foods below 40 degrees F / 4.5 degrees C. This will retard bacterial growth.
- Serve hot foods immediately or keep them heated above 140 degrees F / 60 degrees C.
- If you have a large amount of cooked food to go into the frig, divide it into small amounts so that it cools rapidly. Large, hot items can raise the temperature of the whole frig, raising the temp of items already cooled.
- Remember the danger zone for food problems is between 40 degrees F / 4.5 degrees C and 140 degrees F / 60 degrees C.
- Follow approved home-canning procedures. You are most likely to get botulism or other serious food illness from your own home canning!
- Heat canned foods thoroughly before tasting. Normal cooking will generally kill microbial contaminants.
- If you don't think a food or dish seems right, throw it out!
Enjoy your fresh food and produce - and keep using those reusable bags.