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Reusable Grocery Bags and Food Safety

As Summer Arrives, Reusable Grocery Bags Must Be Maintained for Food Safety

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. 4.10.24

Medicaid Planning Rhode Island
Attorney RJ Connelly III

"We have finally had a taste of spring, and it's time to begin to discuss warm weather safety tips for older adults," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "In today's blog, we will discuss reusable bags when grocery shopping. Many stores nationwide have replaced plastic bags with environmentally friendly options such as paper sacks or reusable bags in recent years. However, it is essential to note that reusable bags require proper sanitization to remain safe. Medical researchers have reported that if these bags are not washed thoroughly and regularly, they can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, yeast, mold, and coliforms, posing serious health hazards."

A Closer Look

A study by Canadian researcher Dr. Richard Summerbell in Toronto sheds light on the potential health risks of reusable bags. Dr. Summerbell collected 49 "used" bags to test for viral health hazards and disease transmission. His findings were alarming:

  • Sixty-four percent of the bags had bacteria levels.

  • Thirty percent of the bags had elevated bacteria counts.

  • Twenty-four percent of the bags had mold present.

  • Twenty percent of the bags tested positive for yeast.

  • Twelve percent of the bags had dangerous levels of coliform.

The study concluded that reusable bags could become an "active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, and coliforms." It also highlighted that the presence of yeast and mold in these bags is a significant concern for people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, those undergoing cancer treatments, or those living with HIV.

Furthermore, the study suggested that washing these bags may not be effective if they are used excessively and recommended replacing them regularly. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one out of six Americans (forty-eight million people) gets sick yearly from foodborne illnesses. Of this group, 128,000 are hospitalized, with 3,000 fatalities. The elderly population is particularly at risk of hospitalization and death from foodborne illnesses.

A San Francisco Study

It is natural to wonder whether reusable bags cause bacterial illnesses related to food or if it is due to poor hygiene habits or improper food storage. However, research conducted in San Francisco suggests that there might be a connection between the use of reusable bags and the spread of bacterial illnesses related to food.

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Dirty reusable bags can spread illness

San Francisco was the first major city to ban plastic bags over a decade ago after doctors reported increased bacterial illnesses related to food in the emergency rooms. A report titled "Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness" was issued, which examined the correlation between the ban on plastic bags and the increase in foodborne illnesses. The authors found that after the plastic bag ban was implemented, there was a significant increase in the number of foodborne-related diseases, resulting in death by a staggering 46%.

Additionally, the numbers from emergency rooms in the area showed an increase of 34%, where E. Coli was identified as responsible for the illness. However, the authors cautioned that it is impossible to determine the correlation between banning plastic bags and foodborne illnesses because many people suffer from these illnesses without seeking medical treatment. Furthermore, they noted that similar increases in these illnesses have been observed in other areas where the use of plastic bags has been banned.

It is essential to recognize that foodborne illnesses have short-term impacts on our health and can lead to long-term consequences. A published article titled "The Long-Term Health Outcomes of Selected Foodborne Pathogens" discusses the potential lifelong complications of certain foodborne illnesses, particularly among seniors. According to the author, these complications can range from kidney failure and paralysis to seizures, hearing and visual impairments, and even brain damage. Individuals must take necessary precautions to prevent foodborne illnesses and to seek medical attention if they experience any symptoms associated with such diseases.

Norovirus and Seniors

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus with severe consequences, especially for seniors. The virus causes symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea, lasting two to three days. Although most people recover from this illness without any complications, the elderly may experience severe dehydration, leading to serious health issues and even death.

Norovirus spreads rapidly in confined areas such as cruise ships, senior centers, nursing homes, and hospitals. The virus is highly contagious and can be transmitted through various sources, including contaminated food, water, surfaces, and even reusable bags.

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Proper hygiene practices can prevent illness

Reusable bags have been implicated in the spread of norovirus in several instances. For example, a girls' soccer team in Oregon fell ill during a weekend tournament due to the norovirus, which was later traced back to a reusable shopping bag. This incident highlights the potential risks of unsanitary reusable bags and the need for proper hygiene practices.

Unsanitary reusable bags can harbor dangerous foodborne bacteria and viruses, including norovirus, which can survive for extended periods on surfaces. Therefore, using unwashed reusable bags in grocery stores and retail shops can also pose a health risk to store employees, baggers, and other shoppers.

According to Dr. Charles Garba, a researcher specializing in environmental pathogens, reusable bags are likely responsible for many unreported foodborne illness cases. He warns that allowing shoppers to bring unwashed reusable bags into grocery and retail stores without proper cleaning and disinfecting puts baggers at risk and endangers the health of other shoppers in the checkout line.

Proper hygiene practices when using reusable bags are essential, such as washing them frequently with hot water and soap and avoiding using them for raw meat and other potentially contaminated items. These simple steps can help prevent the spread of norovirus and other foodborne illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations such as seniors.

Annually in the United States, the norovirus causes about twenty-one million illnesses, over 70,000 hospitalizations, and, on average, eight hundred deaths – mostly elderly from dehydration. It is the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in this country. 

New Technology Available

Syfel Inc., a Canadian company based in Quebec, has recently introduced a new type of reusable shopping bag with antimicrobial technology. Syfel states that its bags integrate antimicrobial technology, which inhibits the growth of bacteria, molds, and fungi by 99.99%.

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New technology on the market

The technology is embedded in the bags and boxes during manufacturing and can be used on any fabric. The additive used by Syfel has been tested to ISO standards and is recognized as FDA-compliant. It is not visible and can't be smelled or tasted, ensuring it doesn't affect foods. The protection offered by the antimicrobial technology lasts throughout the bag's lifetime. The non-leaching bags and boxes can also be safely recycled.

It is worth noting that other reusable bags on the market are also equipped with antimicrobial technology. If you are interested in such bags, you can easily find them by conducting a simple online search. It is expected that most reusable bags will eventually incorporate this technology soon. However, until then, it is important to take some practical measures to ensure that older adults are protected and that the spread of foodborne illnesses is prevented. These measures include:

  1. Separate bags for meat, poultry, seafood, and produce are recommended to avoid cross-contamination. Use leak-proof, washable, and reusable bags. Small plastic bags for high-risk products are still available, but make sure they are recyclable at major supermarkets to reduce waste.

  2. Inspect your reusable bags regularly. Replace the bag if you notice soiling or discoloration that can't be easily cleaned with soap and water. This will help prevent the spread of bacteria and keep your bags safe and eco-friendly for carrying your groceries.

  3. Consider purchasing a cooler bag to keep your refrigerated and frozen food at a safe temperature on the way home from the store. This can help maintain their freshness and reduce the risk of spoilage.

  4. On warm days, use ice bricks to keep your cooler or insulated bag at a low temperature. This will help maintain the freshness of your perishable items for longer.

  5. When shopping, choose a clean cart or basket. To stay safe, wipe down the handles and surfaces with disinfectant wipes before use.

  6. To avoid contamination, carry fresh produce that won't be peeled or cooked before consumption in a clean bag. This will prevent harmful bacteria or germs from contacting your food, reducing the risk of foodborne illness.

  7. When planning your day, prioritize food shopping at the end of your list. This way, you can quickly store perishable food in a safe location to prevent bacterial growth and foodborne illnesses. Even a short time in the "danger zone" of 41° to 140°F can be enough for bacteria to grow and multiply to dangerous levels. So, prioritize your food shopping and storage practices to ensure food safety.

  8. Avoid leaving shopping in hot cars during warm weather. High temperatures can spoil perishables and damage electronics and medications. Keep purchases in a cool, shaded area, or bring them inside.

  9. Transfer your chilled and frozen products into your refrigerator or freezer immediately after getting home. Keep chilled products at 32 to 41°F and frozen at 0°F or below. Check expiration dates and use products before expiration to ensure freshness and quality.

  10. Don't store reusable shopping bags in your car, as high temperatures can cause them to deteriorate and compromise their integrity. If you must keep them in your vehicle, zip them into a cooler bag to keep them clean and protected.

A Final Word

Attorney Connelly emphasizes the importance of educating seniors aging in place with the assistance of home health aides on the proper use of reusable bags. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to various illnesses due to a weakened immune system as they age. Educating seniors about appropriate food handling techniques is crucial to prevent foodborne diseases.

"Seniors who choose to use reusable shopping bags need to be well-informed about the importance of maintaining their bags' cleanliness to prevent the transmission of viral diseases and bacteria buildup," said Attorney Connelly. "By regularly washing or sanitizing their reusable bags, seniors can safeguard their health and prevent foodborne illnesses."

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Please note that the information provided in this blog is not intended to and should not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog are solely for general informational purposes and may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. This blog may also contain links to other third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites. If you have any particular legal matters, financial concerns, or medical issues, we strongly advise you to consult your attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider.

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