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Follow food safety guidelines when using reusable bags at grocery stores to help cut down the risk of foodborne illness.

Reusable totes can carry health risks with groceries

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Media Contact: Trisha Gedon | Communications Specialist | 405-744-3625 | trisha.gedon@okstate.edu

While many people use cloth or mesh tote bags at the grocery store in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, they may not realize they could be putting their family at risk for foodborne illnesses.

There are several steps consumers can take to help ensure proper food safety, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Extension food specialist. The simplest is to compartmentalize.

“While grocery shopping, place meat, poultry and fish into separate plastic bags to keep any juices from dripping onto and contaminating other foods in your cart,” Brown said. “Most grocery stores offer these bags in the meat department, just as they do in the produce section.”

Stick with that perspective when checking out at the register. Consumers also should use other totes specifically for non-food items such as household cleaners, dishwasher detergent, laundry soap and other like products.

The type of reusable tote will determine the course of action take to clean it. Bamboo or hemp bags are made of biodegradable, natural fibers, which can be machine- or hand-washed with a mild detergent and then machine- or line-dried. Cotton, a natural fiber, can be machine-washed with hot water and laundry detergent.

“Many people like to take insulated bags to the store, especially during the summer months or if they have to travel several miles back home,” she said. “Those bags typically are insulated with polyester fiber and coated with a thermal film to keep foods frozen or cold. They can be washed in warm water and soap or wiped with a disinfecting or anti-bacterial wipe. Be sure to clean along the seams as well, because juices from fresh meats can collect in those areas.”

Nylon or polyester bags, as well as woven/nonwoven polypropylene bags, should be hand-washed in soapy water and line-dried.

Be mindful of where the grocery bags are stored, said Ravi Jadeja, food safety specialist for the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center at OSU.

“Grocery carts, the trunk of your car and dirty floors are places where microbes can contaminate the outer surface of the totes, which in turn can cross-contaminate your hands and food products,” Jadeja said. “Also, be wary of using antimicrobial sprays. Many of those commonly available sprays are not suitable for food contact surfaces.”

Make sure the bags are completely dry before storing them in a cool, dry, clean area.

“Food safety is important not only while preparing food, but in all stages, including shopping, storing and cleaning up after a meal,” Brown said.

OSU Extension offers more cooking and food safety information online.

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