Wash reusable bags – they can breed bacteria

Reusable tote bags have become popular in our community, and they serve as an eco-friendly, trendy way to transport groceries. But, they might be getting you sick.

Cross-contamination occurs when disease-causing bacteria are transferred from one food to another. Reusable totes make it simple for bacteria from raw foods to contaminate produce and other ready-to-eat foods.

Most of us have at least one reusable grocery tote that we use. When was the last time you washed it? A recent study by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods identified that only 15 percent of us regularly clean our eco-friendly bags. This could create a breeding zone for many harmful bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says food-borne illnesses cause an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. A mix of warm temperatures and time can allow pathogens to double every 20 minutes. For example, 300 pathogens, such as E. coli, staph or listeria, over the course of four hours at room temperature or greater can multiply to 28,000 bacteria. Using insulated bags for perishables can certainly keep the temperature of frozen and refrigerated products cooler longer.

Here are some tips to prevent bacteria growth and cross-contamination in reusable bags.

Wash the bags regularly to eliminate bacteria. Do it in the washing machine or by hand and use hot, soapy water. Also remove the cardboard base and wash it with a chlorine wipe.

Designate color-specific totes for food groups, such as red for raw meats, green for produce, and blue for cooked meats and cheese. Use miscellaneous colored-bags for dry goods.

Put your bags in your grocery cart and then load items directly into them. Then place the bags on the conveyor belt when you checkout. Besides preventing cross contamination, youíll spend less money on groceries because your confine goods to a bag.

Before putting meat, poultry and seafood into the reusable bags, divide them by type into separate plastic bags. This prevents their juices from leaking and contaminating your reusable bags.

Clean and disinfect any areas where you place your bags, such as kitchen counters or table, to reduce cross-contamination. Wipe counters before you put the bags on them and again after you remove them. Because kitchens have more bacteria than the typical bathroom, clean dishcloths and sponges regularly. Wash and dry dishclothes in your machines. Put sponges in your dishwasher. You can also put damp dishclothes and sponges in your microwave for 60 seconds. This helps kill harmful bacteria.

Store your reusable bags in a clean, dry location. Avoid leaving them in the trunk of your car.

Aside from being environmentally conscious, there are many benefits with reusable bags. Bags donít tear as easily, they are easier to stack in your car

In addition to experiencing fewer ripped bags, easier bag-stacking in the car and putting more groceries in fewer containers, you can feel that little win just by remembering to take totes into the grocery store on that bi-weekly shopping trip.

ricekw@co.laplata.co.us or 247-4355. Wendy Rice is family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office.