When it comes to frequent E. coli outbreaks, products ranging from lettuce to bison meat are often blamed for contamination, but there may be an easily overlooked factor spreading the bacteria, one that may touch almost every food item your family eats: reusable grocery bags.
Touted as the safer, more eco-friendly alternative to plastic, the reusable grocery bag’s popularity is on the rise. In addition to its green virtues, the reusable grocery bag’s versatility adds to its appeal. Taking the kids to daycare and can’t find the baby bag? Throw everything in one of the reusable grocery bags in your kitchen. Realize your gym bag is at home after your workout? Put your dirty gym socks in the reusable grocery bag that lives in your backseat; the same bag you used last weekend to carry the kids’ beach toys, or brought home dinner with the week before.
They’re convenient and good for the environment, but if improperly maintained they’re potential germ farms that could incubate multiple bacteria in a small area where you keep food. “I think the real danger would be juices dripping out of raw meats, or unpasteurized dairy, and into the bags where they’re absorbed by the cloth,” says Courtney Gidengil, MD, MPH, from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Boston.
“E. coli and salmonella are the most common infection you’d get from a dirty grocery bag, but pretty much any infection that could live in food could theoretically be transmitted to other items when they’re kept in a tight space,” she says, noting that juices and residue from tainted meat or dairy, if allowed to sit in a reusable grocery bag, could be harmful.
That means that even packaged products, like cookies or cereal, if placed in an unclean bag, could get germs on their packaging, which then could attach themselves to hands going in and out of the boxes and touching food.
While the thought of bacteria living all over your recently purchased food may be a bit stomach turning, Gidengil says protecting your family from food-borne illness incubated in grocery bags is easy. “Wash your grocery bags at least one a week, either with a disinfectant spray or with a run through the washing machine, and make sure you’re not using food bags for other purposes, like as a book bag or to carry things for the kids,” she says. “It’s also a good idea to designate one bag for meat only, so it doesn’t sit with other items, like fresh fruit, which is usually bought without packaging and therefore more likely to catch germs if they come in contact with them.”
Gidengil says the best defense against getting sick from food is an age-old solution: wash your hands both before and after you touch food, especially raw vegetables and meat. “To be safe you should always wash your hands, anytime you’re handling food,” she says, “regardless of whether it’s been a reusable grocery bag or not.”