One Bag Washes The Other


plastic-bag-rehabThat resuable bag you are taking to the grocery store might just save the planet; in the meantime, don’t let it kill you. An article last week in Food Poisoning Bulletin appeared which drove home the need to keep your bags clean. The main message is that people don’t know how serious the potential is for severe bag contamination.

With plastic bag bans going into effect in localities across the country, there is now public health data to mine to look for unanticipated outcomes. The authors of a study done last August point out that food bourn illness deaths and ER visits “spike” where and when bag bans go into effect. The main way to avoid such a problem for yourself: wash your reusable bags early and often.

Point taken. I am a reusable bag enthusiast and I will heed this advice. I’m glad that I invested in some durable cotton bags that go into the laundry machine with ease. I’ve seen some cheap POS plastic reusable bags out there that would be a nightmare to clean. It’s not that I don’t clean mine but I can see the frequency needs to go up a lot. After reading the aritcle, I ordered more bags to accomodate a larger rotation which in turn will allow for more visits to the laundry.

So clean bags are a must. But I think there is another side to this story.

There are two things that need further exploration. First, the issue of E. Coli contamination in food. This article makes it sound like meat and vegetables housing deadly E.coli bacteria are commonplace. They certainly shouldn’t be. No sooner wrote than I look up recent news on E. coli and there is another nationwide food recall in progress, this time with spinach. Only in the last two years did the USDA expand its “zero-tolerance” list of pathogenic E. coli strains. As consumers and citizens we need to remain vigilant in driving improvements to our food safety from industry and government alike. No meaningful improvement in public safety has ever been driven by people sitting on their hands.

The next thing to explore is that it’s considered normal for packaged meat to leak juices. It certainly shouldn’t be. I recently had a social media interaction with Safeway. I had a bad experience at one of their stores because the entire meat rack was strewn with leaking packages. Juice was everywhere and the shelves were crusted in days old juice that had dried. An absolute disaster waiting to happen. I wonder if one actually did and I just don’t know about it. Fortunately, they responded to my complaint and cleaned up their act. I checked to make sure they did. But the whole episode got me thinking about packaging meat at the grocery store.

The short version: we should not think of leaky meat packaging as anything less than a stunning failure in food safety. Do we accept leaks in other products? Milk containers, soda bottles, the bag of chips, etc. Short answer is no. Why should we accept it with meat? What special privilege does meat have that these other products don’t? Given the concerns with food bourn illness particular to meat it shouldn’t have any. Better the opposite.

The plastic bag bans are going in because we’re drowning in our own plastic waste. With tens of billions of these plastic bags being distributed every year, even a small percentage escaping the waste stream causes a big pollution problem destroying wildlife. We’ve had the luxury of unlimited plastic bags for so long that our thinking has become lazy. An example is the government’s food safety website for the public, aptly URL’d foodsafety.gov. From an FAQ on ground meat:

At the store … if possible, place the package [of ground meat] in a plastic bag so leaking juices won’t drip on other foods. … Have the clerk place the raw ground beef in a separate bag.

Astonishing. The government’s food safety website blithely accepts that packaged meat leaks and recommends to use a bunch more disposable plastic bags to solve the problem. This isn’t the right way to think about the problem to begin with but it is especially not right in an era when we are trying to reduce plastic waste.

The concept of a supply chain comes to mind. The word chain is used because everything is truly linked, in this case from farm to table. A change made at any link will impact every other. For those of us who support plastic bag bans or are trying implement one in their home town, it’s time to look not just at the bag but what’s going into it. Even if we consumers are responsible for keeping our bags washed, we should not be forced to take unnecessary risks from poorly packaged items that get placed into them. And don’t forget that for these deadly bacteria to get anywhere near our bags in the first place is a complete violation of USDA standards.

I remember in 2010 when, due to extraordinary lobbying effort by the American Chemistry Council, the bill to impose a statewide plastic bag ban in California failed in the Senate. One of the lobbyist talking points: reusable bags aren’t as clean and safe as plastic bags. They used the sloppiness in the supply chain to defend continuing a huge pollution problem caused by the supply chain. We can’t let that happen.


  1. Tom Sullivan says:

    You read Food Poisoning Bulletin?

  2. You don’t? The centerfold girls are hot.

  3. Not me. But someone I follow on Twitter does. That’s what so good about Twitter: delegation!