Dirt Bags at the Grocery Store

Have you noticed the awful looks you get from the reusable bag fanatics at the supermarket? Put your groceries in plastic and they act like you just backed over a baby seal in a Hummer. These people are not amused.

Eco-snobbery aside, I’ve actually been thinking of switching to reusable bags. There’s no denying that plastic bags are horribly wasteful, and even if you repurpose some of them for things like handling dog poop, many of them get tossed away just minutes after you receive them at the store.

Now I’m not so sure.

In something that sounds like a bad local TV sweeps story, a new study has found that these reusable bags are often festering nests of harmful bacteria. Here’s an excerpt:

“Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 12% of the bags and a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.”

Yuck. All this comes at a time when California is trying to pass a law banning plastic grocery bags. Not to sound like a nut, but widespread us of reusable bags could have the potential to make a minor public health problem into a big one.

So what should you do to protect yourself? Wash the stupid things now and then, OK? If not for yourself, think about those poor kids at Price Chopper who have to put their hands into your filthy bags while packing groceries. You want them to get sick, too?

Meanwhile, steal yourself to the icy glare of the sanctimonious shoppers and their smarter than thou bag bias. You may not be green, but at least you’re clean.

37 thoughts on “Dirt Bags at the Grocery Store

  1. I’d recommend carrying reusable bags that are coated in some kind of plastic-y, washable material – I haven’t looked at the Price Chopper bags, but the Hannaford ones generally fit this bill. They can’t absorb meat juices or other icky things, and if something does spill, you have to wipe it up and clean immediately (unlike an unlined fabric bag, which might absorb the liquid and dry before you notice).

    And any which way, you shouldn’t be leaving meats of any kind in the trunk of your car for two hours – technically, if your grocery store is more than about 15 minutes from your house, you should be placing all perishable items in a cooler.

  2. We have a few of those reuseable bags, but we always forget to bring them in when we go shopping. I think it’s a genius plan on the part of the store. Sell the bags, make a profit. People will forget them and buy more.

  3. Kelly: Ack! Meat juice! I think the two-hour issue is more about leakage and surface contamination. My hands always feel dirty after touching meat at the supermarket.

    Michael (TCRPMG): I had somebody tell me that the environmental impact of manufacturing the reusable bags is significant. Can’t win…

  4. “Hand or machine washing reduced the number of bacteria in reusable bags by 99.9 percent.”

    It sounds like a potential health concern, but the solution is simple: Wash the bags regularly. I’m also wondering why anyone would keep meat in their car for up to two hours.

  5. I have the reuseable bags and try to use them every time I shop, but sometimes I forget them in my car. I am not an eco-snob, just try to do what I can. I’ve experienced a different reaction to using the bags. I’ve had baggers give me a heavy sigh when I hand them the bags or roll their eyes. I guess it is more difficult to bag using them? One time I handed my reuseable bags to the checkout person. She looked at me very confused and starting packing my things in the normal plastic store bags. I politely told her I had my own bags and she said, “well I didn’t know which one to use.” (I guess because I had more than one it threw her off balance?) I responded, “how about any one?”

  6. Rob, there are two issues. There’s leaking into bags which are then stored, but there’s also the meat juice in the trunk. It’s something of a false test – it’s basically creating the perfect incubator environment for germs to go crazy. Any time you leave meats in a hot car trunk for two hours, you’re going to have issues – bags don’t matter.

    Yes, if you let the meat juices soak into a canvas bag for two hours in an oven (trunk of car, incubator, whatever), you’re going to get a germ colony or three. It’s not a really reliable indicator of health risk, though, because 1) most people don’t do that and 2) it’s exaggerating the risk based on what’s gonna grow in an ideal medium.

    The issue here isn’t really one of unsanitary bags, it’s one of unsanitary practices. If you practice proper sanitation, none of this will be an issue.

    1. Kelly: Hey, I didn’t author the study, just the ridiculous nonsense surrounding it.

      I added two sentences to the quote I pulled to help readers understand that the study included randomly selected bags from real shoppers, not just the “incubator” test. You’re right, nobody’s going to leave meat in their trunk for two hours — and they didn’t do that in the study — but the seepage that can occur in normal use may contaminate the bag.

  7. Thanks, Rob. Regular washing definitely seems like the solution.

    I wonder, too, how many of the bags made and sold by big-box stores will end up going directly to landfills. But I don’t think it’s a “can’t win” situation. You can use canvas bags you already own (like those canvas bags they hand out at conferences). You can buy a few made from recycled materials. Etc.

    (I promise I’m not one of those people giving you the hairy eyeball at the grocery store. I’m the person helping the cashier fill my bags so I can get out of your way as quickly as possible.)

  8. Meat juices (same goes for chicken and fish) can contaminate anything in a matter of seconds, let alone hours. As someone who cooks a lot, I know the importance of frequent hand-washing as well as cleaning utensils, cutting boards, countertops, and any other surface that has had any contact with raw meat. Sounds like another study has proven that anyone with common sense already knows.

    As for the smug people who carry their own bags and give you the hairy eyeball: South Park fans, what is it that smug people love?

  9. Here’s my take on this issue: I’m more than willing to bet those people who give me the hairy eyeball not only overlook the damage done to the enviornment by way of the manufacture of those bags but they actually buy plastic trash can liners for use at home.

    Me, I use the plastic grocery bags instead. There is no way I’m leaving my trash can unlined. Too disgusting for words. Plus, I’ve got to put my non-recycable trash into the apartment complex’s huge dumpster somehow.

  10. 1) how many times can we say “meat juice” in one blog?
    2) so basically we are saving the environment and killing ourselves.
    3) good old paper bags may be the answer…plus you can put them over you head and not die. Unless you’re driving.
    4) meat juice…..
    5) follow one of those eco-snobs out to their car….it’s probably an SUV.
    6) I use bags made from baby seal skin.

  11. I get the regular plastic bags they give you at the store. I use them for other things like the cat’s litter box, lunches, in the small bathroom garbage can, I put my shoes in them to bring to work, etc. I don’t like the reusable ones because they get ratty and I barely have enough time to do my regular laundry.

    Now here’s something I can’t stand – people who take their fruit and vegetables and put them in the shopping cart without putting it in a plastic bag, and then they put it directly on the conveyor belt at the check out.

    Are these people crazy? Put them in a bag. There are enough germs and dirt and nasty stuff spilled all over them already, not to mention people’s dirty hands. Don’t they get all bruised and scraped up? It leaves a mess for the rest of us. And they eat that stuff?

    I’m all for saving the environment but clean and sanitary conditions are just as important.

  12. You can also reuse and recycle plastic bags. I always forget my reusable bags, I have a ton of them! I do remember them when I go to the farmers market but NEVER for regular shopping..
    i’ve never felt any animosity from fellow shoppers however, maybe you are just feeling guilty.
    But i have definately felt the opposite from baggers, also when I ask for paper. They are more difficult to pack. Both Hannaford and Price Chopper need to educate their staff in not making customers feel uncomfortable!

  13. There are SO many uses for the plastic bags from the grocery store – including MAKING a re-usable bag! We did them as part of a Green Day project, and they actually hold up quite well. It took 12 plastic bags to make one re-usable one, but they were just taking up space anyway 🙂

    You can always use a dispoable plastic one for meat – nobody says you have to use the reusable ones for EVERYTHING. Lysol will kill anything that is living on other stuff.

    Here’s some cool ideas:


  14. When I lived down on Lon Island (thank God is was briefly) They had orange snow fence set up along may of the strip malls and shopping centers of which are too numerous to count and the vast majority of the trash that lined that snow fence was plastic bags from the supermarkets – reuse your bags and wash them weekly all the while cleaning up the environment – sounds win-win to me.

    Plastic was once held as the greatest thing since bottled beer but then again so was DDT! Plastic doesn’t break down into anything but plastic and then only by UV light.

  15. I always carry re-usable bags in my car but I never put meat in them. I just thought that was common sense. Meat packages from the supermarket are often leaky so I just put them in a disposable bag. Alone. Meat goes with meat and nothing else. Even when I was a 12 year old bagger (for tips in Brooklyn) I knew that.

    Use the reusable bags, they’re a good thing. Don’t put meat in to them. Problem solved.

    BTW, I’m getting a little tired of being tricked. I thought for sure this was a juicy, gossipy story about actual real life dirtbags in the supermarket 😉

  16. oh no! I’d be getting the eye glare from #13. I don’t always put my fruit/vegetables in a plastic bag unless I’m buying multiples or its wet. I used to work at a fruit stand and know that fruit needs to breath and shouldn’t be placed in plastic. I do come home and wash regardless of being bagged at the store or not.

  17. We use both…clueless me, I’d never even notice if someone was (what did you call it) the hairy eyeball? I’m not sociable off the farm, so when I go out I don’t look at anyone, anyway! (That way if people are thinking is “that farm filth on those overalls”, I don’t even know.)

  18. Did you know that the skin is colonized by approximately 1,000 different kinds of bacteria? While, I might think twice about putting meat in a reusable bag – I would worry more about the accumulation of pesticides from the fruit and produce. I think people in general have gotten too paranoid over bacteria. I tend to agree with George Carlin who once said: “You have an immune system for a reason, and it needs practice!”

  19. Either way, I can’t wait to see how your local TV news handles the situation:

    Live at Eleven: Are you bringing home more than just groceries in those reusable bags? It’s a popular way to protect the environment — but it could kill you and your family!

    Just kidding, of course. They would never sensationalize a story like that.

  20. There are companies out there that make a bio-plastic that will degrade back to dirt in your leaf pile. If we were to demand that companies make their grocery bags out of this type of material then we can keep the plastic bags.

    To be honest, I do have an investment in a company that does make this kind of plastic. I invested in the company because I liked what they’re trying to do.

  21. It would be good to use reusable bags. It would keep us from adding more pollution to the environment.. Reusable bags would really help a lot in keeping our trashes low..

  22. I think that reusable bags should only be used for BOTTLED water!!! now that’s an environmental statement!

  23. The short sighted eco-nazis once again show their weakness. They act on emotion not common sense. What about what is in the bags since they are almost all made in China

  24. There are companies out there that make a bio-plastic that will degrade back to dirt in your leaf pile. If we were to demand that companies make their grocery bags out of this type of material then we can keep the plastic bags.
    Of course, you need to have a leaf pile for that to be viable… 😉

    PW – my reusable bags are made in the United States. *shrug*

    I guess I’m still just missing the concern here. I bag meats in plastic at the store, and then carry them in lined, reusable bags. The canvas bags only carry dry goods… is common sense that uncommon?

  25. Well after this post and the article in the TU, I hauled mine out of the car and washed them. I’d think of it as I was getting the dirty things out of the trunk to shop and promptly forget when I got home. Brain like a sieve!

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