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Prairie Fare: Reusable Grocery Bags Often Harbor Germs

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Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
In a 2011 University of Arizona study of 87 reusable bags, researchers noted a large number of bacteria in nearly all the bags and E. coli in about 8 percent of the bags.

By Julie Garden Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Recently a bunch of plastic bags floated out of a closet and around my feet when I pulled out a winter coat to wear.

“Why are there plastic bags stuffed in between all the coats in the closet?” I asked my husband.

“It’s easier to get them when I need them,” he answered matter-of-factly.

That apparently made sense to him, but not to me.

“I think we have too many bags again,” I said as I gathered all the bags and stuffed them in a larger bag at the bottom of the closet. He gave me a sideways glance as he observed me disrupting his stash of plastic bags.

A couple of years ago, we resolved to use reusable bags when grocery shopping. We have done quite well, but we were not using reusable bags when shopping at other stores. I had just discovered that our plastic bag supply was building up, despite the fact that we reuse them as trash liners.

Recently, my brother-in-law sent me an interesting news article from San Jose, Calif. As of January 2012, San Jose retailers, with the exception of nonprofits and restaurants, cannot package anyone’s purchases in single-use plastic bags. “Protective” bags, such as plastic bags for meat, are allowed. If you forget your reusable bag, you can buy a paper sack for a dime.

While we do not have a ban on plastic bags in our area, we may want to self-impose a limitation on the number of plastic bags we collect. Not only can they create a storage dilemma in homes, they also aren’t great for the environment, especially waterways and wildlife.

As a New Year’s resolution, we decided to “go greener” and use reusable bags at most retailers and to continue to reuse any bags that we accumulate. Although that resolution is nontraditional, it is one we probably can keep.

We decided to tape a reminder note on the dashboard of our vehicle.

I hope I won’t be surrounded by plastic bags when I open the hall closet in the future. I may need to hang a plastic bag holder from a coat hanger so my husband can stash plastic bags within easy reach, too.

If you regularly use reusable fabric bags for your food, there are some safety issues to note.

The Canadian Environment and Plastics Industry commissioned a study to determine the presence of bacteria, yeasts and molds in reusable grocery sacks. The researchers reported that nearly two-thirds of the bags were contaminated with some type of germ. About 30 percent of the bags had unsafe levels of bacteria, which could promote foodborne illness. About 40 percent harbored molds and yeast that could trigger allergic reactions and infections.

According to the researchers, reusable cloth bags could be contaminated by meat juices. The moist environment of a cloth bag after hauling fresh fruits, vegetables or frozen foods can be conducive to the growth of a variety of germs.

In a 2011 University of Arizona study of 87 reusable bags, researchers noted a large number of bacteria in nearly all the bags and E. coli in about 8 percent of the bags. Microbiologist Chuck Gerba recommended washing the bags in hot, soapy water as a means of removing 99.9 percent of the germs.

However, some reusable bags probably will not withstand washing. Here are some additional solutions to “going green” with your bags while avoiding issues with bacteria.

  • Color-code your bags. Place packaged meat in a separate bag away from your fresh produce and other ready-to-eat foods. For example, use a green or orange reusable bag for fresh produce and use a red insulated bag for meat.
  • Prior to placing meat packages in your reusable bag, place the meat in the plastic bags located next to the meat area. Although this idea defies the no-plastic rule, it helps prevent cross-contamination, which is a major food safety issue.
  • Place different types of meat in separate plastic bags. The reason? The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that we cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 F and ground beef to 160 F. If chicken juice has contaminated the beef, you might not cook it to an internal temperature that inactivates the bacteria associated with chicken.

Speaking of going green, enjoy more “greens” and other colorful vegetables in your diet during the coming year. You may want to add the ingredients for this tasty dip to your grocery bag next time you go shopping for food.

Arriba Nacho Dip

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 c. onion, finely chopped

1 c. green bell pepper, finely chopped

1/2 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped

3 large Roma tomatoes, chopped

1/4 c. cilantro leaves, finely chopped

1/4 c. lemon juice

Rinse and prepare the above ingredients as indicated. Mix fresh ingredients together and alter the recipe to suit your own taste preferences.

1 15-ounce can of refried beans

1 4-ounce bag of shredded cheddar cheese

Mix the refried beans with the salsa and cook for about 20 minutes. Add cheese and stir until melted and then pour it into a serving dish. Serve with baked tortilla chips, whole-grain crackers and/or celery or carrot sticks. Refrigerate leftovers and use within four days.

Makes 12 servings. Each serving has 60 calories, 0.5 gram (g) of fat, 4 g of protein, 8 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of fiber and 230 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)


NDSU Agriculture Communication – Jan. 5, 2012

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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