What's Living in Your Reusable Grocery Bag?

Only one in six Americans washes reusable totes, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

A recent study found that only one in six Americans ever wash their reusable grocery bags. Bacteria growth in totes can lead to food contamination and poisoning. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

Reusable grocery bags have become popular among eco-conscious consumers, especially in DC. In the first year after the District enacted a 5-cent tax on disposable bags in January 2010, residents decreased their use of plastic and paper bags by 80 percent. Montgomery County enacted its own five-cent tax on disposable bags this past January.

But do reusable bags pose health risks? A 2010 food-safety report funded by the American Chemistry Council found traces of E. coli in reusable bags, while an investigation by the Tampa Tribune discovered lead in new bags sold by many national chains.

The Food and Drug Administration reviewed the study’s procedures and data but didn’t find them indicative of a food safety hazard. “Reusable bags are usually painted on the outside,” says FDA spokesman Doug Karas. “There could be minute levels of lead in that paint, but you should only be concerned about what’s on the inside.”

What could be inside? A lot of bacteria, which could eventually lead to food poisoning–something 48 million Americans suffer from each year. Here are ways to prevent health risks:

1) Wash often. In the study funded by the American Chemistry Council, only 3 percent of people surveyed said they cleaned their reusable bags. Washing reduces bacteria by 99.9 percent. It’s not necessary to wash bags after every use, Karas says, but it’s important to clean them if something has leaked. Most cloth or canvas bags are machine-washable. Karas says hand-washing with hot water and soap will do the trick, too. Afterward, hang them up to dry instead of laying them flat.

2) Separate raw meat and fresh foods. Ask a cashier to wrap meat separately when bagging your groceries. When stored in a car trunk for more than two hours, bags containing meat juices grow ten times the bacteria as those without.

3) Use reusable grocery bags only for food. To decrease the risk of bacterial contamination, avoid using the bags for toting things such as shoes, gym clothes, and library books.

4) Store bags in a clean, dry location. Avoid leaving them in the trunk of your car, as the extra heat may lead to bacteria growth.