Reusable Bags Carry More Than Just Groceries

BOSTON (CBS) — It seems these days everyone is trying to reduce waste, and reusable grocery bags are more popular than ever.

But some experts warn if these bags aren’t properly cared for, they could put your family’s health at risk.

When it comes to bagging groceries, Paco Diaz and his family skip the plastic and bring their own reusable bags to the store instead.

“We feel like we’re contributing towards a healthier environment.” Diaz says.

But could saving the environment be endangering your family’s health?

Food safety expert Lisa Berger says reusable bags can become a breeding ground for bacteria.

“A lot of times the bags can become contaminated with different types of bacteria such as coliform or e-coli,” Berger says.

And infection from these bacteria can cause stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea.

Mindy Brashears, director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University, put reusable bags to the test.

Brashears and her team tested eleven bags — eight used and three brand new.

“Coliforms and generic e-coli are things that we look for, as scientists, that indicate some kind of contamination has occurred,” Brashears explains.

WBZ-TV’s Paula Ebben reports.

The test found no contamination in the new bags, but half of the used bags had coliform contamination and 25 percent tested positive for generic e-coli.

“They were probably used to carry fruits and vegetables — perhaps they were unbagged — or it could have been some type of animal product, whether it be dairy products, eggs or meat product,” Brashears says.

Worried? Well don’t toss your reusable bags just yet. Experts say there are some easy ways to keep the germs at bay.

First, designate certain bags for meat and others for produce and ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross contamination.

“Because they are raw products, the bacteria such as e-coli, possibly salmonella, can contaminate these bags and then later can contaminate other fruits and vegetables that are placed in these bags,” Berger says.

Second, wash the bags regularly, either by machine or by hand.

Diaz was shocked to learn the bags he used were contaminated. “I was surprised to have a bag that was incredibly filthy, or just had tons of germs,” he said.

While the Centers for Disease Control says there have been no reported outbreaks of bag related illnesses, food experts say it’s often tough to pinpoint just where food illness stems from and urge people to take proper precautions when using recyclable bags.

The experts say you should treat reusable bags like any other utensil that touches your food and it will go a long way toward protecting your family’s health.

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