An old saw in the news business is “consider the source” – in other words, take into account not just what you’re hearing, but where it comes from. Which is why we’re not so swayed by a recent report about reusable grocery bags and their potential to make you sick.
The report came out of the University of Arizona, Tucson and Loma Linda University in California. Smack on page one is this note: “The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the American Chemistry Council for providing funding to support this study.”
The American Chemistry Council is the trade group that advocates on behalf of plastic-bag manufacturers. Now why would the folks who make plastic grocery bags want to cast doubts on the safety of reusable grocery bags? Oh, right.
And it worked, sort of. The way it played in the media was that reusable grocery bags may be good for the environment, but you’re taking your health in your hands every time you, you know, reuse one, because the bags can harbor e coli and other bacteria.
That soundbite was based on the report’s analysis of 84 reusable grocery bags collected in California and Arizona. Yup, just 84. We have a colleague who grew up with 10 sisters and brothers. A single weekly shopping trip for his family could easily net 20 bags of groceries, so 84 doesn’t really seem like an adequate sample size for a scientific study.
The researchers tested for pathogenic bacteria Salmonella and Listeria, but didn’t find any, nor did they find strains of E. coli that could make one sick. They only found bacteria that don’t normally cause disease, but do cause disease in people with weakened immune systems.
Our food-safety experts were underwhelmed as well. “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union. “These bacteria can be found lots of places, so no need to go overboard.”
But Hansen notes that there are some reminders to take away from the study. It’s easy to spread bacteria from meat, fish, or poultry to other foods – in your kitchen or in your grocery bags. So we do think it’s wise to carry those items in disposable bags. Reusable bags are fine for most everything else, but it’s a good idea to wash them occasionally.