Your cloth bags are not going to poison you

The wire stories about bacteria in reusable bags are starting to make the rounds again. (Funny how they re-emerge during key points in campaigns to enact a plastic-bag-reduction ordinance, huh? Almost like it’s an opposition tactic…)

The study, authored by microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, asserts that reusable bags that are exposed to raw meats can harbor bacteria. It goes on to imply that when consumers don’t wash their bags regularly, that bacteria can transfer to other foods and potentially cause food-borne illness.

There are several good rebuttals already out there, particularly this one from Consumer Reports, which points out a number of holes in the study–notably funded by the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying/trade organization for plastic manufacturers. Among the flaws:

    – Only 84 bags were tested. The sample size is not statistically significant.
    – The bacteria found aren’t even harmful to human health. They tested for Salmonella and Listeria and found none.

Check out this quote, from Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union:

“A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study. These bacteria can be found lots of places, so no need to go overboard.”

Which brings up an excellent point: bacteria are everywhere. Dr. Gerba regularly releases “dirty household items” studies–conveniently funded by corporate interests. Last month he released a study of the “germiest” common items (underwritten by Kleenex and hand sanitizer manufacturer Kimberly-Clark), and reusable bags weren’t included. He also says grocery cart handles carry more bacteria than a typical bathroom.

So is the answer really to avoid reusable bags? Of course not. No illness has ever been linked to cloth bags. But it does make sense to follow common-sense food safety practices like washing your hands. Especially after you’ve handled all those other doorknobs, gas pumps, and grocery carts…

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