5 On Your Side

Study: Re-usable grocery bags a breeding ground for bacteria

Posted July 20, 2010 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2010 6:11 p.m. EDT

Going 'green' when buying groceries can have unexpected consequences.

— Reusable grocery bags are a popular way to be “green,” but there could be a risk involved with using and re-using them.

Many people use them instead of plastic bags, which eventually get thrown away. A study making the rounds suggests reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria. But a North Carolina State University professor says don't toss those re-usable bags just yet.

Researchers from Arizona and California found E. coli in 12 percent of the bags they tested. One of the co-authors says the study suggests reusable bags pose a "serious risk to public health."

Food safety expert Ben Chapman is an assistant professor at N.C. State and says he uses reusable grocery bags all the time, even though he's not surprised the researchers found E. coli in the bags they tested.

“The biggest issue isn't so much being able to find it in the bag. It's whether after handling it, it can transfer back to some of the ready-to-eat foods we might put in here,” he said.

Chapman says that's why it’s important to separate raw meats from any fruits, vegetables or whatever else you might buy so that you don't cross contaminate. One option is sticking with plastic bags for meats.

“It's not the most green," he admits.

Or do what Chapman’s family does and designate one or two reusable bags for just meat.

“What we try to do is keep our fresh, our raw meat in a specific bag, and that bag gets washed much more often then the other ones,” he said.

Chapman says the study’s findings are not a reason to stop using reusable bags, but he does want to know more. He said he hopes to do an extensive study of his own and have results in a few months.