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Reusable Grocery Bags and Food Borne Illness

Note to Seniors - Keep Those Reusable Bags Clean and Sanitized This Summer Season

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Attorney RJ Connelly III

"As the Memorial Day holiday quickly approaches and the summer heat descends upon the Northeast, tens of thousands will be making their way to beaches and picnic locations, and with this activity comes the dangers of foodborne illnesses from improperly stored and prepared food," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "But there may be another risk that many do not realize exists before the food is prepared - unwashed reusable bags. We have previously discussed this and want to share this again as more stores are moving away from disposable plastics and towards reusable bags."

"We certainly are not implying that people should not use these bags," said Attorney RJ Connelly. "We urge everyone to think about the environment and the dangers of the types of plastics used in bags; however, as reusable totes increase, we just want everyone to be aware that they need to be maintained properly and replaced regularly." What is the concern Attorney Connelly is speaking about?

A Possible Health Hazard

Multiple research studies have found that if reusable bags are not washed regularly, bacteria, yeast, mold, and coliforms will build up, which could result in a health hazard. And although younger people may be able to fight off some of these illnesses, older individuals, especially those with compromised immune systems, may become deathly ill.

A Study of Reusable Bags Two studies support the concerns expressed by Attorney Connelly. The first was by Dr. Richard Summerbell from Sporometrics in Toronto, Canada. In this study, he found:

  • The single-use plastic and first-use reusable bags (the controls) showed no evidence of bacteria, mold, yeast, or coliform.

  • Sixty-four percent of the “used” reusable bags showed some bacterial contamination.

  • Thirty percent of the “used” reusable bags had elevated bacterial counts.

  • Twenty-four percent of the “used” reusable bags showed the presence of mold.

  • Twenty percent of the “used” reusable bags indicated the presence of yeast.

  • Twelve percent of the “used” reusable bags had unacceptable coliform counts.

The University of Arizona and the Loma Linda University of Public Health jointly conducted the second study. They looked at 84 reusable bags and found the following about how people use these bags that could lead to the growth of bacteria and molds:

  • Forty-nine percent used the bag once per week; 22%, twice per week; 18%, three times per week; 11% more than three times per week

  • Seventy percent used the bag solely for groceries; 30% for other uses

  • Seventy-five percent did not use separate bags for meats and vegetables.

  • Fifty-five percent transported bags in the automobile trunk; 45% in the back seat

  • Fifty-five percent stored bags in the home; 45% stored reusable bags in automobiles

  • Ninety-seven percent did not wash reusable bags

Consistent in these studies was that the owners of reusable bags did not wash them. The presence of yeast and mold was a primary concern for those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly or those with HIV or undergoing cancer treatments. This study also concluded that even washing these bags may not be effective the more they are used and should be replaced regularly.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one out of six Americans (forty-eight million) get sick yearly from these foodborne illnesses. Of this group, 128,000 end up in the hospital, and some three thousand will die, with the elder population appearing to be the most at risk of hospitalization and death.

Now, you may be asking how these researchers know that reusable bags are responsible for some illnesses. Could it not be poor hygiene habits or improper storage of food that could be the problem? And those are perfectly reasonable questions; however, there is also research to back up these statements, so we go to San Francisco.

The San Francisco Study The “City by the Bay” was the first significant authority to enact a ban on plastic bags over a decade ago. After medical professionals reported an increase in the number of bacterial illnesses related to food showing up in emergency rooms, a study was done, and a report was issued entitled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness”.

In this study, the authors found that foodborne-related illnesses that resulted in death increased by forty-six percent after implementing the plastic bag ban. In addition, the numbers from emergency rooms in the area showed an increase of thirty-four percent, where E. Coli was identified as responsible for the illness.

The authors further stated that the correlation between banning plastic bags and foodborne illness could not be fully known because many people suffered from the conditions without seeking medical treatment. They also wrote that similar increases in these illnesses had been seen in other areas where the plastic bag ban is in effect.

There are also other long-term consequences of foodborne illnesses. In a published article entitled “The Long-Term Health Outcomes of Selected Foodborne Pathogens”, the author discussed the potential lifelong complications of some foodborne illnesses, especially among seniors. These complications included kidney failure, paralysis, seizures, hearing/visual impairments, and brain damage.

The Norovirus and Reusable Bags

Another virus that loves dirty, reusable bags is the Norovirus. Most of us have heard about this dreaded illness due to the multiple cruise ships that have been affected by this bug which forced the companies who operated the vessel to cut short the trips and return to port for medical treatment of the passengers. For most people, a bout with norovirus results in two or three miserable days spent close to the bathroom. But for seniors, norovirus illness can be severe and even fatal.

For the elderly who catch norovirus, symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. They may or may not experience headaches, body aches, or a slight fever. Norovirus tends to come on quite suddenly. One moment you’re feeling fine, and the next, you’re in the bathroom wondering what you ate that is causing such a digestive system disruption. Symptoms last around one to two days, but the virus will continue to be contagious for up to two weeks.

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads rapidly in closed areas such as cruise ships, senior centers, nursing facilities, and hospitals. The primary effect on seniors is severe dehydration; if such an illness occurs in the summer heat, the problem is compounded.

How have reusable bags been implicated in the spread of norovirus? This lesson comes from a girls' soccer team in Oregon a decade ago as they became quite ill while traveling for a weekend tournament. When family members inquired about the cause of the sickness, Oregon’s Public Health investigators could track down and confirm that the norovirus was transmitted through a reusable shopping bag – something that was thought impossible up to that time.

Following this incident, Dr. Charles Garba, a researcher who followed the transmission of such pathogens in the environment, stated, “The latest outbreak of norovirus reinforces the research we have conducted about the propensity of reusable grocery bags to act as hosts for dangerous foodborne bacteria and viruses. Reusable bags are often at fault more than we realize: cases often go unreported and uninvestigated”.

Photo of a dirty reusable bag from NewsRadio 650 CKOM

Dr. Garba continued, “The cause of roughly seventy percent of foodborne illness cases, the norovirus, spreads very easily, and symptoms include projectile vomiting and severe diarrhea. It can have such sweeping consequences as school and emergency room closures."

Annually in the United States, norovirus causes about twenty-one million illnesses, over 70,000 hospitalizations, and on average, eight hundred deathsmostly elderly from dehydration. It is the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in this country. So prolific is this virus that it can spread in hours, affecting an entire nursing home, cruise ship, or other closed quarters. Given this, there are steps a senior can take to help prevent this if they are using reusable bags.

Keeping Those Bags Safe

Keeping reusable bags safe is simple. Check our list below:

  1. Use separate, leak-proof, easily washable bags for meat/poultry/seafood and fruit and vegetables - retailers can still provide small plastic bags for these higher-risk, recyclable products at major supermarkets.

  2. Regularly check your reusable bags and replace them if they are soiled or can't be cleaned.

  3. When purchasing your reusable bags, ensure you get a cooler bag to keep your refrigerated and frozen food at a safe temperature on the way home.

  4. If you drive a distance, you may need to add ice bricks on warm days.

  5. Choose a clean cart or basket for your shopping. The good news is with the precautions being taken due to COVID-19, markets are cleaning these carts regularly.

  6. Never put fresh fruit and vegetables that won't be peeled or cooked before eating directly into the cart; put them in a clean bag, generally available in the produce section.

  7. Plan to do your food shopping last on your list of chores and take it straight home so perishable food doesn't warm to temperatures in the danger zone where bacteria can grow (41° to 140°F).

  8. Don't leave your food, meat, or produce shopping in a hot car.

  9. Pack chilled and frozen products immediately at home into your refrigerator or freezer.

  10. It's best not to store your reusable shopping bags in your car where they can get hot or encounter pets or dirty items such as sporting equipment and shoes. If you keep them in the car, zip them into a cooler bag to keep them clean.

  11. Replace these bags regularly because tears and rips could harbor bacteria that cannot be cleared through washing as they age.

Attorney RJ Connelly points out that as more seniors choose to age in place with the help of home health aides, they should be educated about using these bags.

One thing we know is seniors are extraordinarily susceptible to many illnesses due to the deterioration of the immune system as they age. The best way to deal with the problem of foodborne illnesses among the elderly is to educate them regularly about proper food handling to prevent such an illness from occurring rather than treating it after the fact", said Attorney RJ Connelly. “Home healthcare providers should train their clients about food safety as part of their overall service plan. This should include the proper handling and cleaning of reusable bags”.

"The bottom line is that seniors who use reusable shopping bags should wash and/or sanitize their bags regularly to prevent bacteria buildup and illness from foodborne pathogens and viral disease transmission," said Attorney RJ Connelly. "There is also a new generation of reusable bags that are resistant to germs and available in many areas of the country and should be the choice for everyone, but especially for seniors."

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