Can Reusable Grocery Bags Make You Sick? The Answer May Surprise You

Carrying your groceries in reusable bags is excellent for the environment, but the bags could be a potential breeding ground for bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella if you’re not careful. To help you handle reusable grocery bags safely, Adam N. Karcz, MPH, CPH, CIC, an infection preventionist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, offers these tips:                     

Wrap raw meat in an extra bag.

“Even when raw meat is wrapped in cellophane, sometimes its juices leak through the packaging, and those juices contain bacteria,” says Karcz. “If the juices sit around in your reusable bag, they’ll grow and breed more bacteria in there.” To sidestep that scenario, wrap raw meat its own additional plastic bag (you can usually find them in the meat and produce sections of markets), and then put it in your reusable grocery bag with that extra barrier. Once you’re home, keep the meat in its separate bag until you’re ready to cook it to be sure those juices don’t leak in the fridge, adds Karcz.

Use different reusable totes for meat and produce.

“Put meat and raw fruits and vegetables in separate bags to prevent cross contamination,” says Karcz. Not only will you protect your fruits and veggies from the bacteria on raw meat, you’ll also protect your meat from the bacteria on produce. “Fruits and vegetables are grown in the dirt and they’re not always washed when you buy them, so it’s very easy for bacteria to hitch a ride from the grocery store into your bag,” adds Karcz. Even if your raw meat is double bagged and your produce is packaged, play it safe and put them each in their own bags. Consider labeling the grocery bags so that you don’t get them mixed up.

Clean your bags thoroughly.

Remember to wash your reusable grocery bags after each use. “Throw them on a regular laundry cycle and dry them thoroughly,” says Karcz. If your reusable bags have a plastic coating, clean them with a disinfectant wipe or spray. “Ideally, look for a disinfectant product that says it kills E. coli and salmonella, since those are the germs that tend to cause food borne illness,” adds Karcz. A good cleaning will prevent bacteria from lingering and breeding in between shopping sessions.

Watch where you store your bags.

“Don’t store your bags underneath your kitchen sink or in the trunk of your car since these places tend to be dark and damp, which is an environment that breeds mold and other germs,” says Karcz. Instead, look for an open dry spot to store your reusable bags. This will make them safer and easy to find when you need to head out to the market.

-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman