Reusable bag health risk stems from meat juice

Those reusable grocery bags may be an environmentally friendly replacement for the plastic store bags, but they could be a breeding ground for bacteria including E. coli when juice from raw meat seeps out of packaging and on to the bag. The next time something is put in the bag, it could get contaminated, a study says.

"Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled," said study co-author Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona professor. The study, a joint project by University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, tested 84 reusable grocery bags carried by shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and more than half were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria, including 12% showing E. coli bacteria.
The study shows 97% of those interviewed never washed or bleached their reusable bags. Those bags are also used to carry things like books, snacks and clothes.The location of the grocery bags also played a factor in bacteria growth -- the contamination rates were higher in Los Angeles than the other two locations, says study co-author Ryan Sinclair, a professor at Loma Linda University in California.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say some strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, especially among the very young or elderly, or those with weakened immune systems.

The university study also made several recommendations for consumers who use the reusable bags as well as lawmakers:

  • Consumers should separate raw foods from other products when using the bags.
  • Don't use the bag for any other purpose.
  • Consumers shouldn't store meat or produce in car trunks because the higher temperatures promote bacteria growth.
  • Cleaning instructions could be printed on reusable bags.
  • States and local governments should sponsor public education campaigns.

The American Chemistry Council paid for the study, which the University of Arizona says was done independently from the group, which backs the plastics industry. The study looked at 84 reusable bags -- 25 in Los Angeles, 25 in San Francisco and 34 in Tucson. Four new reusable bags and four new plastic disposable bags were also tested -- none of those new bags were contaminated.

An environmental group is taking issue with the study partly because of its funding source. "This is industry-funded junk science designed to scare consumers," Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, told the Arizona Republic newspaper. He added that bacteria are everywhere and that it's irresponsible to say reusable bags are a serious public health threat.
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