Reusable bag safety study leaves me feeling empty

Gerba and crew’s reusable bag study released via press release last week is garnering quite a bit of attention, including some coverage on the blogs and mainstream media. The discussion is getting predictably political focusing a lot on a potential ban on plastic bags in California (folks especially focusing on funding from the chem/bag industry; who cares). Doug covered this a bit last week, but HuffPo blogger Mark Gold takes a stab at the study in a from-the-obvious-file post:

The American Chemistry Council has been making hay with its earth-shattering findings that unwashed reusable bags can be contaminated with a variety of bacterial pathogens, including Salmonella (um, yes, if you inoculate bags with them – the researchers artificially added Salmonella in one of their experiments, never actually recovered it from a shoppers bag – ben). Bag bacteria counts are especially high when you allow meat and chicken to incubate in the trunk of a car where temperatures can get nice and toasty. I wonder how much the ACC paid for this ground-breaking research to point out the obvious.

The study, when and if it is published will provide some nice baseline results on what people say they do, demonstrates the effect of washing, and doesn’t like some try to point out really say that plastic bags are any safer (there was no comparison) but there are a couple of things missing that could really have been useful. Two big questions still need to be answered:

– Generic E. coli is floating around in bags, recoverable in the Gerba study in 12 % of those tested, but can it be (or is it likely) to be transferred to any ready-to-eat foods, or somehow to food contact surfaces in the home?

– What effect does drying have on the bags, if at any? According to Gerba et al., washing works, no one reports doing it;  but what about flipping them inside out and drying bags for a few days after use?

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.