Raise your hand if you’re guilty of this: You schlep unwashed produce, drippy meat packages and sweaty milk containers, along with a smorgasbord of groceries and cleaning products, in your reusable grocery bags week after week, without so much as a thought to cleaning those, now potentially, bacterially contaminated bags. You simply hang them back on the hook, ready for your next eco-conscious shopping trip.
You (and I) are not alone: Only 15 percent of Americans bother to regularly clean their reusable bags, according to a new survey by the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods.
While we may be saving the environment with our burlap, canvas or recycled plastic totes, we may be putting ourselves at risk for food poisoning if we don’t treat them like we do any other food container–by washing them after each use.
“Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce,” said registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman, in a released statement. “Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods.”
Home Food Safety offers these tips to keep your grocery totes a healthy vehicle for food transportation. (I’ve added some food for thought, where appropriate):
- Wash totes in the washing machine, or by hand, with hot, soapy water. The machine will probably work best for fabric totes. And some fabric totes may shrink, so you’ll either want to line dry them or dry them on low setting. You should probably use elbow grease for your recycled plastic totes. To get all the nooks and crannies, turn the tote inside out and then wash it down.
- To prevent juices from meat, fish and poultry from leaking, put these packages into a separate plastic bag before placing in your tote, and keep these items in a tote separate from other foods. Since the use of plastic bags kind of defeats the entire purpose of reusable grocery totes, you may want to mark, and designate, a certain bag specifically for these items. Just be sure to tell the bagger about it.
- Clean all areas where you place your totes, to avoid cross contamination. Yes, the undersides of totes can harbor germs, too, especially if you place them directly into bacteria-crawling grocery carts and kitchen floors.
- Store clean totes in a clean, dry location. Avoid storing totes in the trunk of your vehicle, especially if they aren’t clean since hot and humid conditions cause bacteria to flourish.