Are Reusable Grocery Bags Really Icky Bacteria Farms?

You may recall late last month when wrote about a study that purported to find some nasty bacteria being harbored in the fabric of reusable, cloth shopping bags. While we just said this means y’all should wash your bags more frequently, our science-minded siblings at Consumer Reports decided to take a closer look at the study itself.

First off, says CR, is to consider the source of the study. More precisely, consider the source of funding for the study, which in this case came from the American Chemistry Council.

Says Consumer Reports:

The American Chemistry Council is the trade group that advocates on behalf of plastic-bag manufacturers. Now why would the folks who make plastic grocery bags want to cast doubts on the safety of reusable grocery bags? Oh, right.

Next, CR took issue with the sample size of the study. The researchers only looked at a grand total of 84 reusable bags, which one could argue is not a sufficient sample size for a study on grocery bags, given the number of them in use and the various ways in which people use, store and clean them.

And then there’s the findings themselves, which made a big deal about finding E. coli in about 12% of the bags. According to CR, none of the strains of E. coli discovered would normally make someone sick.

A CR food-safety expert puts it this way:

A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study… These bacteria can be found lots of places, so no need to go overboard.

The one thing CR does agree with the study on is that you should probably not use reusable bags to carry packages of uncooked meat, fish or poultry.

Can reusable grocery bags make you sick, or is that just baloney? [Consumer Reports]

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  1. Alvis says:

    I don’t think I buy any food that’s not packaged somehow. Even fruits and veggies get wrapped in a plastic bag so I can weigh them and sticker them (so as not to be an ass who makes the cashier weigh everything and hold up the line). How’s all this bacteria getting on these bags in the first place?

    • Sir Winston Thriller says:

      Transferred from your hands after you pick up the plums or grapes or potatoes and then put them in a bag to weigh. Don’t forget other people are handling the bags or produce, too.

    • RickN says:

      >>(so as not to be an ass who makes the cashier weigh everything and hold up the line).

      None of the grocery stores in my areas (Publix and Krogers, predominately) have pricing of produce anywhere other than the register. So, to answer your question, everyone in my part of Georgia makes the cashier do that. :-)

      • Alvis says:

        You get a pass then. I mean when there’s the OPTION to pre-label your veggies and some people just refuse to do so.

        • Dallas_shopper says:

          God I WISH we could do that here. No store except Central Market does that around here that I know of.

          It would save me a lot of conversations like this:

          Cashier: “What’s this?”
          Me: “A parsnip.”
          Cashier: “It’s not in the book…you remember how much it costs?”
          Me: “Sorry, no…”
          Cashier: “PRICE CHECK ON PARSNIP! What’re these?”
          Me: “Kiwis.”
          Cashier: “They’re not in the book…you remember how much they cost?”
          Me: “I want to say they’re 4 for $1, but I might be thinking of how much they cost at Sprouts.”
          Cashier: “PRICE CHECK ON KIWIS! What’s this?”

          etc.

          • longcat says:

            Either the checkers are retarded, new, or you’re buying odd produce that other folks rarely purchase. As a checker, I rarely need to ask what a piece of produce is, unless it’s something I see very rarely and cannot remember exactly what it is. Even then, it is often just for confirmation, not wanting to accidentally mis-identify it. And even if I have no idea what it is, the person buying it most certainly (usually) does, so then I can very quickly and easily look up the PLU in the handy book on my checkstand.

    • leastcmplicated says:

      I think its more of the poultry and fish. Even when its in the plastic the grocery store wraps it in, its still sometimes wet and the juices and blood leak, which is why when i buy it, I wrap it in another plastic bag before placing it in my cart. I really dont think they mean fruits and veggies.

    • FangDoc says:

      Humans. Filthy, disgusting humans.
      After all, we stick our hands into those bags, and it’s been repeatedly shown that way too many of us don’t wash our hands properly, or for long enough, or at all. Not to mention that we stick our hands into the bags right after we’ve had our hands on the grocery cart handle, which I think has been amply identified as being microbiologically similar to a gas station toilet seat.
      In other words, we’ve met the enemy, and it is us.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        What a lame way to describe the human condition. We, humans, are covered in germs, bacteria, mites, just a ton of just that isn’t “clean.”

        We are exposed to it every second of every day. Washing your hands does not eliminate exposure.

        And all this exposure is actually GOOD for us. It helps create antibodies so that all the normal germs we face don’t kill us. It helped un to evolve into a species that could withstand a lot of punishment, and to actually survive on this planet.

        • FangDoc says:

          I said we were filthy. I never said that was a bad thing.
          In fact, my first-year microbiology professor told us very early on that human beings are covered in a fine layer of feces at all times.
          Alvis asked where the bacteria in the bags was coming from. I told him.
          If we didn’t have butts, we wouldn’t have E. coli on our hands. I personally don’t think it’s “lame” to have a butt, but apparently some people disagree.

        • SOhp101 says:

          Exposure is good up to a point… I don’t want to be exposed to the bacteria that is on the guy’s hands who just used the restroom and didn’t bother to wash after. Surprisingly happens quite often.

    • knoxblox says:

      Maybe I shouldn’t be wiping my butt with the bags…

    • jiubreyn says:

      It may not be limited to the food they’re putting into the bag, but where they put their bags. Who knows how often those checkout counters are cleaned..if ever? Of course there’s their home, and on the ground, etc.

  2. SkokieGuy says:

    Even if you sterilize your reusable grocery bag, I’m guessing that the food is already ick-laden by the time is is in the bag.

    Ever look at the conveyor belts at checkout? Often they are filthy and damp. It is condensation from frozen products, or drippings from meat or poultry?

    There are times that the belt has been wet and dirty and before unloading my cart, I’ve asked the cashier if she can clean it, which results in nasty stares, a spritz of Windex (kept to wipe the scanner window) and a half-hearted swipe with a paper towel that likely does little.

    • Shadowfire says:

      The cleaner they use is not windex. It is a sanitizing spray that is used to clean both the belts and the scanner/scale. And often they are damp because the person just cleaned it.

      • SkokieGuy says:

        Come shop with me. Unless the store is refilling Windex bottles with sanitizer, I have watched them use Windex.

      • chiieddy says:

        I worked in a grocery store as a cashier (albeit many moons ago in the 90s) and we used glass cleaner on the belts. Of course, back then vegetable and fruit codes started with a 9 and not that wimpy 4 they use now. :)

      • mbz32190 says:

        I work in a large, well-known, upscale grocery chain in the upper East coast, and I can confirm all we do is wipe the belts off with Windex, no real sanitizer of any kind. (Actually, it is worse than windex..it’s watered-down blue generic glass cleaner that comes out of a bag.)

    • jessjj347 says:

      I wouldn’t mind cleaning the belt if I was a cashier. Actually the reason they usually don’t get to clean it is because there are so many continuous customers.

    • longcat says:

      I’m constantly cleaning my checkstand at work. I can’t stand a dirty checkstand. Obviously, if I have a constant stream of customers, I cannot do so, but try my best to keep it clean whenever I have time. The whole thing: belt, scale, counter. It bothers me that I have many coworkers who don’t seem to mind a dirty or messy checkstand.

      As for the cleaner involved, it’s some dark blue stuff that comes concentrated, and then is mixed with water into a lighter blue. It is produced for exactly such cleaning purposes, and seems to do a perfectly good job of cleaning. If we used something powerful, people would bitch, and if we used something weak, people would bitch. Can’t please everyone. :)

  3. TheGreySpectre says:

    Generally I wash my food or it comes in a package, the conveyer belts never looked all that sanitary so it doesn’t really worry me.

  4. AI says:

    If I use them for the meat I buy, yes, yes they are. I don’t always grab a produce bag to re-wrap the meat. And if you do re-wrap the meat in a produce bag, you’re still using plastic. I am 100% against getting rid of plastic grocery bags, because every single one I get from the store gets reused to hold garbage in my vehicle, or for cleaning up after the cat. If they stop using plastic bags at the grocery store, I will have to find a type of small plastic bags with handles so I can hang them in my car. And every proper garbage bag uses waaay more plastic than a thin grocery bag, so I’ll end up paying more and hurting the environment more, all to ‘save’ the environment.

    • trashpicker says:

      Perhaps you might consider switching to a flushable litter like “the worlds best cat litter” which is made from grains and won’t upset your septic. It also clumps better than clay and doesn’t stink. There are other benefits to using it as well. The reason I say this is that I find it insane to wrap up kitty’s waste (something that will biodegrade) in plastic thus making sure it stays around in a landfill for years, stuck inside a bag that won’t decompose. Or buy yourself some bio-degradeable poop bags.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        There are pets that aren’t cats that use litterboxes, but no one’s developed flushable litter for them.

      • AI says:

        I have never seen biodegradable bags, so I use what exists. Grocery bags don’t need to decompose. Under force and agitation, those thin ass bags will get torn to shreds. People seem to forget that just because something doesn’t biodegrade doesn’t mean it hurts the environment. A rock doesn’t biodegrade, but nobody complains about those. Actually, a bag that does biodegrade may end up hurting the environment more, depending on what chemicals it biodegrades into.

        • Fidget says:

          Aren’t landfills so packed that none of it biodegrades anyhow? Source amnesia like whoa, so I’m honestly asking. Yet one more thing to tick off on the cat-shopping list…

          • MauriceCallidice says:

            Virtually no US landfills are composting type landfills, which is generally what’s required for effective biodegradation.

        • JamieSueAustin says:

          Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It photodegrades(scroll down). That’s the problem. A sandwich eventually breaks down to carbon, minerals, water, yadda yadda…and that stuff works its way back into the nutrient cycle and gets used again.

          Plastic doesn’t become anything other than plastic. It just becomes smaller and smaller bits of plastic. All the plastic that ever was, still is. Eventually, the combined effect will interrupt other natural cycles.

        • trashpicker says:

          That’s just idiotic. Maybe you could consider looking for biodegradable bags. They do exist at any pet supply store. Also, a rock does biodegrade – it’s called sand. But maybe you’ve never seen a beach so you don’t know that it exists either.

      • Kimaroo - 100% Pure Natural Kitteh says:

        I tried that litter with my cat, but he just wanted to eat it and didn’t understand it was for pooping. It doesn’t work if he thinks it’s food.

        He’s very, very picky about his litter, but I found a different one that is natural that works, and we are both happy with it. I still don’t flush it though.

    • whitecat says:

      You can buy reusable, washable litter bags for your car. The one I bought for my car in 1998 is still in use.

      If you MUST have thin plastic bags with handles, I’m sure someone will rush to make them commercially available very cheaply if grocery stores stop using them. And they should and I hope they do.

      I got into the habit of using cloth and recycled material bags (washed weekly) over two years ago. I take one with me every time I enter ANY store. I bring it in the house, empty it, and next time I leave the house, take it back to the car so I am never without at least one bag. It’s simple, and some groceries give you a reusable bag discount.

      • pantheonoutcast says:

        “If you MUST have thin plastic bags with handles, I’m sure someone will rush to make them commercially available very cheaply if grocery stores stop using them.”

        And then people will buy them and use them. And those bags will, ultimately, end up in the exact same place as the grocery store bags. Plus, considering that they have to be packaged and shipped in consumer-sized containers, they will require more resources and energy to manufacture and distribute. It’s completely self-defeating.

        One of the benefits of living near a relatively low-income area is that I never have to worry about this type of upper middle class environmental chicanery happening in my area. Tell the people in my neighborhood that they have to purchase their own grocery bags because the store will no longer be using plastic ones. Go ahead, I dare you.

  5. MamaBug says:

    yeah, you should wash your bags every so often. And yeah, there’s bacteria everywhere. Including your apples, and the chicken, etc. I say used a plastic bag to wrap up the chicken and then put it in your bag – you know, the chicken you plan on cooking. And prepare everything to spec, so as not to get germies.

    • zandar says:

      i have a bunch of the reusable bags sold at stores for a buck apiece. They tear and i suspect are not easy to wash other than by hand. They seem too fragile, I don’t want to try.

      I’ve been moving on to canvas bags and it’s pretty marvelous- the bags I have can hold as much as the store-bought bags, and washing is trivial- toss them in the laundry with the t-shirts. as a profoundly lazy man, I need something very easy to keep the reusable bag thing happening, and this is the solution that works for me.

      • MamaBug says:

        I toss the 99 cent bags in the laundry – a few have minor tears, but hey, it was a buck! I wash them on a gentle cycle – I have a front loader, so maybe that makes a difference.

  6. The_Fuzz_53 says:

    What if you put the meat in a plastic bag?

    • ARP says:

      You’ve eliminated some of the benefit of a reusable bag. But, if you’re just doing it for meat, I think you’re better off than just using the disposable bags.

  7. TuxthePenguin says:

    Has anyone every looked to see how many times you need to use the reusuable bag to even break even? Obviously it takes a lot more “carbon” to make them on a per-unit basis than a plastic bag.

    Now add in having to wash them every… five times? Ten times? I wonder…

    • Tim says:

      You can get a reusable bag at a grocery store usually for $1. Many grocery stores will give you a 5-cent discount each time you use it. So in 20 trips, you break even. Add in there that in DC there’s a five-cent fee for each plastic bag, and a reusable bag fits maybe 3 times as much food as a plastic bag, and you’ve saved 20 cents each time, so 5 trips.

      As for the washing, put it in with your normal laundry every couple of weeks.

      But I don’t use them just to save money. I walk to the grocery store, and it makes the trip a hell of a lot easier if I just carry two bags instead of, say, six. The whole environmental thing is nice too.

    • selianth says:

      I saw an article just the other day about this. The manufacturing of most of the polypropelene bags (the square totes with handles that you see at most grocery store checkout lines) created the equivalent of around 11 disposable plastic bags. The polyester/nylon bags that you can get (like Envirosax or Chicobags) create the equivalent of 7 plastic bags during manufacturing. Also consider that you can get more groceries into each of your reusable bags (at least 2-3 plastic bags worth), so it really only takes a couple trips for them to “pay off” environmentally. As for washing them, I throw them in with my clothes, so there’s no additional loads there.

    • ARP says:

      I think you’re ROI is relatively short. I can carry 5-6 bags worth of stuff in one reusable bag (especially liquids). And unless you got meat jucies all over your bag each time, you only need to ocassionally wash them (a few times a year, max).

      If you want to “explode” that analysis, you’d also have to factor chemical makeup, energy to produce, and transport costs. Mine are polyester. Plastic have petroleum (oil) components. If you factor in our foreign policy and wars, it looks even worse.

      In short, nope, not an issue.

      • Doubts42 says:

        Polyester IS plastic, ( polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to be precide. In fact it is the same plastic that water bottles are made of. Still using oil.

        • ARP says:

          Thank you- I meant to say Polypropylene, which is a variant of PET, I think (It’s been a while). Regardless, it’s a still part of the overall analysis, but likely cancels each other out, unless one uses much more oil than the other

    • AI says:

      A reusable bag has to take at least 50 times the energy to produce vs standard grocery bag, based on weight of materials alone. Plus you have to add in the energy to clean these bags multiple times over their lifetime. I have seen no studies or data to prove this, but I’m actually fairly sure reusable bags hurt the environment more than standard grocery bags.

  8. selianth says:

    I already had a couple Envirosax, but I just ordered a set of 5 more because I find that they are the only ones I bring with me on a regular basis (since they roll up small enough to fit in my purse.) I plan on putting my meat/fish/poultry exclusively into the red bags I already had – that way it’s easily identifiable as “the meat bag” and I will be washing those much more often. I’ll keep the new ones for all my other groceries.

    • SkokieGuy says:

      ‘The Meat Bag’ would be an awesome band name.

    • Dallas_shopper says:

      I have large reusable bags of a different color specifically for meat products. If I end up not buying meat but have the meat bag with me, I don’t put anything in it at all. That’s as much germ paranoia as I’ll indulge.

  9. ExtraCelestial says:

    Meh, if exposure hasn’t killed me yet, it’s just building my immune system.

    • redskull says:

      Agreed. I’m a germaphobe, but even I have my limits. I’m not gonna start washing my grocery bags.

  10. SuperSnackTime says:

    Can we PLEASE get a new baseline for these “icky germs” studies? Bacteria is all around us at all times, always. It seems ridiculous that these studies report from the baseline of “no bacteria.” Shouldn’t these sort of studies have to instead report dirtiness/cleanliness relative to a common benchmark of everyday human life? it gets tiresome when these studies come out and another person has to say “oh, by the way, this is [much less gross],[equally as gross],[only slightly more gross] than the stuff you do every day.”

    • johnva says:

      That would detract from the whole goal of freaking people out about something that is a competitor to their product.

  11. chiieddy says:

    We wash them anyway. They go into a hamper in our kitchen with our dish clothes. I’ve actually been considering getting re-usable vegetable bags from Chicos to reduce that plastic consumption as well.

    http://www.chicobag.com/c-29-produce-stand.aspx

  12. tiz says:

    hah, i’ve never washed my bags. whoops. oh well, can’t be any dirtier than the kitchen sink, where a lot of people place their “clean” dishes to air-dry…

  13. NashuaConsumerist says:

    Let’s not forget, these reusable bags can carry more than food and still replace plastic bags in all sorts of establishments. Hell, I use them at Home Depot, Khols and various trips to the local Mall. No organics there, dimished worry of bacteria, and still no plastic bags to worry about (have you see the giant super thick bags Khols uses? Tossing one of those is like tossing 8 plastic grocery bags in the trash!)

    Common sense, if it’s food realated an not in a can, box, or jar wash those bags with your regular laundry every once in awhile. Simple.

  14. Teki says:

    it’s called a washing machine, try it sometime.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I don’t think you can throw some of the plastic reusable bags in the washing machine. The canvas ones are fine, but not the plastic ones, I don’t think.

  15. WorkingDad says:

    So the original study tried to Sherrod the reusable bag issue?

  16. sopmodm14 says:

    kill the planet or have bacteria

    being they’re reusuable, they’re also washable/rinsable

    everything in the world has germs..even, …GASP ! the very air one breathes, so don’t overract

  17. Working Mom says:

    Back before the polio outbreak in the 40′s and 50′s kids played in the dirt and got exposed to germs and developed some immunities. About that time everyone started limiting kids exposure to dirt and the outside world. I believe that by not exposing ourselves to some germs and the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial products have made us more susceptible to germs that people used to be imune to.

    Yes, take precautions, wash your food before you cook it, but don’t carry things to an extreme.

    • NatalieErin says:

      I’m not anti-playing-in-dirt, but your understanding of illness before widespread handwashing and use of antibiotics is faulty. People of ye olden days died of all sorts of nasty, feces-borne illnesses like cholera and diptheria (these diseases are still endemic in the developing world). And yes, those diseases struck people of all ages.

  18. kouotsu says:

    Unforunately the general public will always believe all strains of E. coli are bad because the media’s scare tactics would be hurt significantly if they gave away that secret.

  19. JonBoy470 says:

    This reminds me of the Mythbusters episode where they took on double-dipping. Their conclusion was that the salsa already harbors so much bacteria that any contribution from double-dipping is dwarfed by the germ content of the food itself. I imagine it would go similarly for a reusable shopping bag.

  20. actuatedpoodle says:

    Just like Obama and his dead space program, when libs don’t like science, they pretend it doesn’t exist.

  21. elangomatt says:

    Can bacteria actually survive in a re-usable bag for a long period of time after it is used? It seems to me that the bacteria would die out fairly quickly (like a day or two) once the bag is dry.

  22. Snaptastic says:

    I’m with George Carlin (RIP)…when did we become such pussies about germs?!?

    I’ve been using reusable bags for well over 2 years and I have never washed them, nor do I intend to wash them. They do not look like they need washing and as far as I am concerned, sitting in my hot car in the Colorado summer is disinfectant enough for me.

    • magadorspartacus says:

      Right!?! I’m not even sure how to wash those things. Don’t get me started about the terror over germs in this country.

  23. smo0 says:

    First of all… grocery stores are farms for bacteria… I read a study some years ago that they were more “contaminated” per square inch than a hospital…. I didn’t think about it much until a few month ago when my roommate brought it up… he immediately goes “wash your hands before putting food away….” I do anyway but he wouldn’t let me touch a box before doing so….

    Either way – just wash the bags, simple.