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It's Your Bag
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The reusable grocery tote bag – common in the early twentieth century until replaced by the disposable grocery sack later that century – is making a comeback. It is touted as more ecologically responsible.

It turns out these bags have an ecology of their own. Recent studies have shown these bags are potential environments for bacteria and viruses. These include Coliform and E-coli bacteria that cause intestinal illnesses, and norovirus that may trigger attacks of diarrhea and vomiting popularly called “stomach flu.”

A 2010 study released by the Loma Linda University School of Public Health1 revealed a large percentage of reusable totes were contaminated by bacteria causing foodborne illnesses. The bags picked up common bacteria originating in the kitchen, and served as a home for them. The bacteria would transfer to food carried in the tote – or to surfaces where the tote was placed.

Totes stored in automobiles in warm climates proved exceptionally vulnerable, especially when the bags were exposed to leaking juices from raw meats. A dark, warm car trunk is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

A recent outbreak of “stomach flu” among a Beaverton, Washington girl’s soccer team was traced to a reusable tote bag contaminated with norovirus. Seven teens got sick after eating food carried in that bag2.  

So how do you protect your family?
  • If possible, limit use of reusable totes to storage of non-food products or foods (like canned goods) that cannot be contaminated by surface exposure.  
  • Whenever possible store raw meats and vegetables in disposable bags for the trip home and keep these bags separated from the reusable totes.
  • Wash or sanitize reusable totes regularly – preferably between each use, but at least once a week. Use hot water and bleach for best results.
  • Do not store reusable totes in your car.
If you must use reusable totes to transport raw meats and fresh vegetables, take additional precautions:
  • Have separate and dedicated totes for meat and for fresh vegetables. Label them so that they do not get mixed up.
  • Never put fresh vegetables in a tote previously used to transport meat, especially if the vegetables will be eaten raw.
  • To reduce the opportunity for cross-contamination, do not allow totes that carry meat to come in contact with those that carry vegetables.
  • Wash these totes after every use. Use bleach.
  • Do not buy or use reusable totes that cannot be laundered. Get canvas or cloth totes that can be safely washed.
The ecological impact of frequent washing of totes or of the use of disinfecting chemicals such as chlorine bleach may exceed the impact of using and properly disposing of disposable paper or polyurethane bags. If your community has outlawed disposable bags you have no choice but to increase your environmental footprint in this manner. Diseases passed through contaminated totes cause serious illness and can be fatal. Your family’s safety should be your first priority.

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By Mark N. Lardas. Copyright © 2012 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.


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