Back to plastic? Reusable grocery bags may cause food poisoning

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Posted: May 20, 2009, 11:00 AM by Karen Hawthorne

Get out your bleach and launder those reusable fabric grocery bags after each use. You're not clogging up landfill with plastic throw-aways, but your environmental conscientiousness could make you sick.

A microbiological study a first in North America of the popular, eco-friendly bags has uncovered some unsettling facts. Swab-testing by two independent laboratories found unacceptably high levels of bacterial, yeast, mold and coliform counts in the reusable bags.

"The main risk is food poisoning," Dr. Richard Summerbell, research director at Toronto-based Sporometrics and former chief of medical mycology for the Ontario Ministry of Health, stated in a news release. Dr. Summerbell evaluated the study results.

"But other significant risks include skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections," he stated.

The study found that 64% of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than what's considered safe for drinking water.

Further, 40% of the bags had yeast or mold, and some of the bags had an unacceptable presence of coliforms, faecal intestinal bacteria, when there should have been 0.

"The presence of faecal material in some of the reusable bags is particularly concerning," Dr. Summerbell stated. "All meat products should be individually wrapped before being placed in a reusable bag to prevent against leakage. This should become a mandated safety standard across the entire grocery industry."

Don't use your cloth grocery bags for toting gym clothes or diapers or anything but your groceries to prevent possible exposure to a superbug called community-acquired MRSA, a highly antibiotic-resistant form of a common infectious bacterium, Dr. Summerbell cautioned.

The study was funded by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), an industry initiative to promote responsible use and recovery of plastic resources. EPIC is a committee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

Conclusions from the study? This may have you gladly handing over the coins for plastic bags at the supermarket:

The moist, dark, warm interior of a folded used reusable bag that has acquired a small amount of water and trace food contamination is an ideal incubator for bacteria.

The strong presence of yeasts in some bags indicates the presence of water and microbial growth substrate (food).

There is a potential for cross-contamination of food if the same reusable bags are used on successive trips.

Check-out staff in stores may be transferring these microbes from reusable bag to reusable bag as the contaminants get on their hands.

In cases of food poisoning, experts will have to test reusable bags in addition to food products as the possible sources of contamination.

Next steps? The study has been sent to the federal Sub-Committee on Food Safety currently investigating the safety of Canada's food system, federal and provincial health ministers and medical organizations across Canada with a request for immediate action. 



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