Your Reusable Grocery Bags Could Make You Seriously Sick

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Diana Liang)

In order to cut back on waste and help preserve the environment, it’s usually recommended that you take reusable grocery bags to your local supermarket, but a new report indicates that might not always be the smartest move. The UK’s Food Standards Agency is now suggesting that reusable grocery bags can harbor harmful bacteria and lead to serious cases of food poisoning.

To be more specific, savvy shoppers who carry raw meat or fish in one of their reusable bags could be putting themselves at risk for spreading dangerous, and sometimes lethal, bugs like E. coli and campylobacter. That’s because the bacteria can be transferred from the outside of the packaging, even when you don’t see any leaks.

What’s more, researchers at the University of Arizona found that 97 percent of shoppers rarely, if ever, wash their reusable bags. And more than 75 percent of shoppers do not separate raw meats from other grocery items. After testing 84 bags, the researchers discovered coliform bacteria and E. coli in all but one of the bags.

This means there is a high risk for cross contamination that could leave you with stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, or much worse. To avoid unnecessary illness, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England has suggested that consumers use separate bags for raw meats, fresh produce, and ready-to-eat foods. Color-coding or labeling each might be best to help you remember, but you also need to regularly wash cotton bags and replace sturdy reusable bags that can’t be washed once they’ve been soiled.

The FSA even went so far as to issue an advisory last month, saying: “Ideally, you should have enough bags to carry raw foods, ready-to-eat foods, and non-food items such as washing powder separately. Keep enough bags for life for raw foods only and don’t use the same bags again for ready-to-eat foods or for carrying other household items.”

With the number of foodborne-illness outbreaks on the rise in recent years, we welcome the extra caution. In fact, my next trip to Trader Joe’s will be with three bags in tow.