Bacteria in Reusable Bags: The Hidden Dangers of Hidden Dangers

Reusable Bag

Factory meats in reusable bags: making you violently ill and tragically ironic, all at the same time. // flickr/sagamiono

From the L.A. Times Health Blog late last week comes word of an interesting little study done in Arizona and California of the cleanliness of reusable shopping bags. The study points out that while the bags have become gradually more and more popular, washing them has not; this can be a problem if bacteria are allowed to enter them and then subsequently fluourish in warm environments (i.e. your kitchen, the trunk of your car, etc). As it turns out, that’s a pretty common occurence:  the study found coliform bacteria in 51% of the bags they tested, which were selected randomly from shoppers; 12% of bags contained E. coli. Not good. Reusable bags are supposed to be saving us. Where are we going wrong?

This is actually more important than it may initially appear, because it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to come up with greater and greater frequency as the “sustainability movement” bumps its head against a consumer environment that has largely been shaped by the forces its trying to oppose: processed foods and factory farming methods. Coliform bacteria in the food supply come overwhelmingly from meat; the study points out that the majority of foodborne illnesses “originate in the home,” but what this really means is that people get sick because they purchase contaminated meat and then either eat it without properly cooking it, or handle the meat raw and then fail to sanitize their hands and any surface the meat might have touched. Foodborne illnesses originate in animal feedlots; when consumers get sick, it’s because they fail to kill all the bacteria. 

It’s also important because it’s a total facepalm moment: come on, people, you’re toting around random ground beef in your “green” shopping bags?

In a more responsible food production environment, contamination risks from any sort of food at all would be greatly reduced. Humans get sick from bacteria that animals carry around in their guts. Ideally, of course, you don’t want the contents of your cow’s guts in with, say, it’s fat and muscle tissue. The system we have doesn’t always guaranteet that, though, so when you’re carrying around something bad (factory meat) in something good (a reusable bag), you’ve got a conflict of interests. Guess which industy — the meat industry or the reusable bag industry — will be forced to change?

Feedlot Cattle

Cows on a feedlot. Also pictured: zillions of coliform bacteria. But you have to get really close to your monitor to see them. //

Again, if meat was raised differently, we wouldn’t have to be very worried about this. Contamination occurs almost exclusively because of two entities: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and massive factory slaughterhouses. In the former, massive amounts of manure and animal waste are concentrated, creating ideal breeding situations for coliform bacteria which exist naturally in cows’ guts but can be deadly to humans. In these feedlots, where virtually all of the meat in America comes from, cows literally spend almost their entire lives wallowing in feces. When they are subsequently processed in high-volume slaughterhouses, it’s almost impossible to properly clean and prepare the animals for consumption. When you purchase ground beef, there is meat from any number of cows in there, coming from any number of places. There is also probably some fecal matter. This is an issue for all factory-raised meats, but especially for ground beef.

So, what is the answer? For the producers of the meat, it’s often heavy doses of antibiotics. For the government, it’s allowing those antibiotics to be used, as well as recommendations that you cook your meat to acceptable levels of done-ness and ensure that you don’t, say, use a cutting board for your raw meat, and then use that same board for foods which you will consume without first cooking. Because of studies like this one, it may be recommended in the future that you sanitize your bag after using them to handle your groceries. These strategies merge into a general prescription for food in America: treat it before you eat it.

While the extent of the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed cows as it pertains to strains of E. coli like the deadly O157:H7 is currently under debate (it’s not true that grass-fed beef is somehow “immune” to deadly E. coli strains), the idea that massive animal feeding operations create substantial health risks is not. The best way to avoid these risks is to avoid purchasing factory meat, as well as vegetables from faraway places that may be located downstream from CAFOs, which often discharge huge quantities of untreated fecal matter into local water supplies.

It’s not a crazy idea to practice reasonable sanitary habits, and that extends to washing your bags every once in a while. They get dirty. Food particles attract bacteria and mold. This is a good reminder. But it’s much more important to keep a proper perspective on these things: if you keep on buying factory meats, but begin to treat your bags with antibacterial sprays or something, you’re treating the symptom while encouraging the sickness. The risk of policy failures here are very real, as the Massachusetts raw milk debate effectively demonstrates.

This also demonstrates that in terms of changing the system for the better, simply using these bags isn’t nearly enough. In the grand scheme of things, reusable bags are token gestures toward a future which we’d all like to achieve but are struggling to provide real momentum to. We’d like to imagine that little steps, en masse, will enact great change. This is only true to an extent: we can do these things for ourselves, but our ideas do not necessarily replicate themselves in others. 

Still, ridding your life of plastic bags is an unquestionable positive. California is currently close to passing a law which will ban supermarkets and pharmacies from distributing plastic bags by January 1st, 2012; In Massachusetts, though, similar measures have stalled repeatedly. We need to stop eating factory meat, and we need to make the notion of plastic bags an offensive one. Let’s not allow ourselves to lose sight of either.


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