Reusable Grocery Totes Carry Pathogens: Who Knew?

By Deborah Ross

I had one of those "Really?" moments recently while reading an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics press release.

The registered dietitians of this national organization want us to watch out for reusable grocery tote bags, as they can harbor the kind of bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

Really? Yes, really.

As the article explains, the various items -- including fresh produce, meats and poultry -- that are stuffed into a grocery tote can carry harmful bacteria until those items are washed and cooked.

In turn, the bacteria can transfer to the tote bags and hide out there until we get around to washing the bags.

But do we wash the bags? The Academy collaborated with ConAgra Foods as part of the Home Food Safety Program to conduct a survey of Americans that found only 15 percent of us regularly wash our grocery totes.

That's cause for concern, considering that each year, 48 million Americans suffer through food poisoning from salmonella, E. coli and other foodborne pathogens.

"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.

"Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

Food poisoning often is preventable, and the Home Food Safety Program wants us to take the easy, precautionary step of washing reusable grocery totes frequently.

Other food-poisoning prevention steps the dietitians advise include:

 Clean all areas where the totes are placed, such as kitchen counters.

 Store the bags in a clean, dry location.

 Avoid leaving empty totes in the trunk of a vehicle.

 Ask the checkout clerk to put meats, fish and poultry in plastic bags.

 Dedicate a few reusable totes to meats, fish and poultry, and other totes to produce and ready-to-eat foods.

 Hand-wash the totes in hot, soapy water if that's preferred to the machine.

In general, we should all have it drilled into our heads by now that separation of raw foods from processed and ready-to-eat foods is one of the keys to food-poisoning prevention.

Along with advice about grocery totes, there's additional information about good kitchen practices to prevent food poisoning at www.homefoodsafety.org/

As the National Library of Medicine points out on its Medline Plus site, harmful bacteria are the leading cause of foodborne illnesses. Parasites, viruses and chemical contamination are less common.

When food poisoning hits, it can bring on an upset stomach, nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and dehydration. Once in a while the symptoms are serious enough to require hospitalization.

The harmful bacteria lurking in grocery totes can go by many names.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, raw meat and poultry can harbor Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli O157:H7, L. monocytogenes and Salmonella.

Raw and undercooked eggs can contain Salmonella enteriditis; raw and undercooked shellfish can have Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Other scary names include: Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus and C. botulinum.

So guess what I am about to throw into the washing machine at my house? My rainbow assortment of reusable totes from all my favorite grocery chains.

Really.

Sources:

"Survey: Less Than 1 in 6 Americans Frequently Washes Grocery Totes Increasing Risk for Food Poisoning." Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics press release. Web. 7 May 2012.
http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=6442468957

"Foodborne Illness." Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine. Web. 7 May 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/foodborneillness.html

"Bacteria and Foodborne Illness." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 7 May 2012. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/bacteria/#1

"Keep Raw Meats and Ready-to-Eat Foods Separate." Home Food Safety. Web. 7 May 2012. http://homefoodsafety.org/separate

Reviewed May 8, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith