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Prairie Fare: Think Green for Grocery Sacks

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist
To keep your food safe and be “green” at the same time, launder reusable cloth bags regularly.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

As we were driving away from the grocery store, we noticed the grocery shoppers lugging plastic sacks to their cars. Seeing their sacks triggered a memory.

“We’ve really cut down on the number of plastic grocery bags in our house,” my husband commented.

“That’s for sure! Do you remember our closet?” I asked.

“Yeah, we had bags stuffed with bags,” he said.

I still could visualize our hall closet filled with bags. The accordion doors were ready to burst open. That was not a positive memory. I had plenty of other stuff that needed a home in that closet.

Fortunately, we became enlightened consumers and recycled a vanload of bags. Then we switched to reusable cloth grocery bags. We keep about a dozen cloth bags in the pocket behind the driver’s seat, and we probably have decreased our bag use by 80 percent. We reuse the remaining plastic sacks as trash bags.

Cloth grocery bags are more environmentally friendly and solve some home-clutter issues. However, are there potential issues with reusable cloth grocery bags?

As you might guess, any time you reuse something related to food, the risk of cross-contamination is present.

The Canadian Environment and Plastics Industry commissioned a study to determine the presence of bacteria, yeasts and molds in reusable grocery sacks. The researchers noted 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.

Knowing these potential contamination issues has prompted a couple of actions in our house. We have designated our red cloth bags as “meat bags,” and other foods are not placed in the meat bags. Some companies sell several sets of bags in different colors so you can designate different bag colors for different foods. For example, you could use a green bag for fresh produce.

I haven’t completely given up plastic sacks at the grocery store, though. To avoid cross-contamination, I put meat in the small plastic bags available at the meat cooler. Then I place the meat at the lower level of the grocery cart, away from fresh produce. Finally, the meat goes in the red cloth bag on the way home.

I separate the types of meat from each other, too. For example, red meat goes in one plastic bag, while poultry goes in another bag. I have a reason for doing this. Different types of meat are cooked to different temperatures for quality and safety. Ground beef, for example, is cooked to 160 degrees, while chicken is cooked to 165 degrees.

Think about where you set your grocery sacks, too. Do your grocery sacks ever spend time on the parking lot while you open your trunk? When you retrieve your bags, do you set them on your garage floor? Would you feel comfortable eating a meal directly from the parking lot or from the trunk of your vehicle?

If you set your grocery sacks on a dirty surface and then on your kitchen counter, you could be adding some “ingredients” from the parking lot or your vehicle to your next menu. If you place your bags on the kitchen counter or table, be sure to wash these surfaces thoroughly before preparing or serving food.

To keep your food safe and be “green” at the same time, launder reusable cloth bags regularly.

Sometimes fresh produce can dampen the insides of bags. Since germs thrive in a moist environment, so don’t be a friendly “host.” Be sure to let reusable cloth bags dry thoroughly before you store them.

Have you made your grocery list for the week? Here’s an easy recipe courtesy of “Eat Right Montana.” You can “recycle” leftover roasted chicken or turkey in this recipe, too.

For more information about food and nutrition, visit the NDSU Extension Service Web site at

Terry’s Terrific Tortilla Soup

4 corn tortillas

1/2 c. chopped onion

1/4 tsp. garlic powder (or 1/2 tsp. minced garlic)

1 1/2 c. diced chicken breast meat (or use leftover roasted chicken or turkey)

1/4 tsp. chili powder

1/4 tsp. cumin

2 cans low-sodium chicken broth

1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes (with juice)

1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies (with juice)

1/2 c. reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut tortillas into thin strips. Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet for about seven minutes, or until crisp. Prepare ingredients. Spray cooking pot with cooking spray, add chicken (or turkey) and stir until thoroughly cooked (or reheated). Add onion, garlic, chili powder and cumin. Cook and stir two minutes. Stir in broth, tomatoes and chilies. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve soup topped with tortilla strips and cheese.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 141 calories, 2.6 grams (g) of fat, 19 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 300 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

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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