Raw meat in reusable bags; use plastic

I bought a chicken at the megalomart on Sunday.

The cashier asked me if I wanted the bird in a plastic bag, to which I replied, “Yes.”

john.oliver-300x255I do that for all meat, and the cashiers are trained to ask (I’m nosey that way).

The poultry at this and many other megalomarts in Australia is prone to leaking, and while I use reusable bags, I don’t want chicken blood all over them. And I wash them like Chapman says.

The woman behind had brought her own cooler bag (commonly known here as an Esky, as in short for Eskimo, to which I usually say, they’re Inuit, and isn’t that a bit racist?), and when asked if she wanted her bird in a plastic bag, replied, “Oh no, I’ve got my Esky. It’s fine.”

A bloody cooler bag isn’t cool.

Reusable bags redux: wash them

The reusable-shopping-bags-are-full-of-bacteria stories are uh, being recycled, but at least the alarmist nature has subsided. Barrett Newkirk of the Desert Sun writes that while reusable shopping bags can contain bacteria (except not citing pathogens) that the risk reduction solution is pretty easy – wash them. Newkirk cites the only published microbiological-risks-in-bags study from Williams and colleagues (2011) and interviews co-author Ryan Sinclair. vector_skull_halloween_trick_or_treat_grocery_tote_bag-p1496283172805687032wl6f_325(3)(2)-1

I classify them as pretty dirty things, like the bottom of your shoes,” said Ryan Sinclair of the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. Sinclair recommended that the bags be treated like the dirtiest laundry and washed in hot water with a detergent and disinfectant. He said he puts his own bags in the washer with socks and underwear, and that even the polyurethane bags can be washed five or six times before they start to fall apart.

Putting the bags in the washing machine and dryer about once a week is a good strategy, Sinclair said. Washing with a spray cleaner and cloth isn’t effective, he said, because it tends to miss dirt deep in corners and creases.

A 2011 study from scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found only 3% of shoppers with multi-use bags said they regularly washed them. The same study found bacteria in 99% of bags tested; half carried coliform bacteria while 8% carried E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination. 

The paper which Sinclair co-authored showed that generic E. coli can be floating around in bags, recoverable in 7 of the 84 bags in the study.

The next question is it likely to be transferred to any ready-to-eat foods, or somehow to food contact surfaces in the home?

Just because the bacteria might be there, doesn’t mean it can contaminate a ready-to-eat food. No one has presented data to support that. In a cross-contamination event there is a dilution effect when it comes to transfer and it needs some sort of matrix to facilitate the transfer. And while reporting coliform in bags sounds scary, the group of bacteria are naturally associated with plant material and are not often thought as major public health risks, or even good indicators of pathogen contamination on food or surfaces.

A separate study published in 2012 traced a norovirus outbreak among a girls’ soccer team from Oregon to a reusable bag stored in a hotel bathroom used by an ill team member.

Back when that paper was published I exchanged emails with the insightful and entertaining Bill Keene (who is missed), one of the folks who investigated that outbreak and coauthor of the paper cited, he confirmed that the type of bag was irrelevant: “This story had nothing to do with disposable bags, reusable bags, or anything similar. It is about how when norovirus-infected people vomit, they shower their surroundings with an invisible fog of viruses—viruses that can later infect people who have contact with those surroundings and their fomites. In this case these were was a reusable bag and its contents—sealed packages of Oreos, Sun Chips, and grapes— but it could just have easily been a disposable plastic bag, a paper bag, a cardboard box, the flush handle on the toilet, the sink, the floor, or the nearby countertops.”

Newkirk states that Sinclair is working on some new work to show pathogen movement throughout a grocery store.

The study, conducted at a central California grocery store in early 2013, involved spraying bags with a bacteria not harmful to humans but transported in a similar way to norovirus, a leading cause of gastrointestinal disease linked to more than 19 million illnesses each year in the United States.

I look forward to seeing the peer-reviewed output. We keep our reusable bags dry; wash them every couple of weeks and use one-use bags for raw meat.

Reuasable shopping bags and risk ranking

Senator Chuck ‘Chuckles’ Schumer, a New York Democrat, sent a letter on Sunday to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, urging the agency to investigate the issue of lead in those trendy reusable shopping bags – available for sale at most retailers.

I’m sure the Senate has other food-related matters it could be dealing with; I’m sure the FDA has some things to do; and I never understood why a consumer had to buy a new plastic container to recycle or compost, or a lead-lined bag to go shopping.

Everyone’s got priorities. And someone’s making a buck off it.

So as Chapman has written, the lead stuff isn’t much of a food safety priority.

Risk rankings are risky because inevitably, someone will get pissed.

But, as noted in the N.Y. Times on Sunday, “there is no evidence that these bags pose an immediate threat to the public, and none of the bags sold by New York City’s best-known grocery stores have been implicated.”

USA Today today reported that Publix Super Markets and Winn-Dixie are asking suppliers to make reusable bags with less lead, according to Schumer. Wegmans Food Market in September said it was halting sales of some bags.

“They say plastic bags are bad; now they say these are bad. What’s worse?” asked Jen Bluestein, who was walking out of Trader Joe’s on the Upper West Side with a reusable bag under her arm on Sunday.

“Green is a trend and people go with trends,” Ms. Bluestein said. “People get them as fashion statements and they have, like, 50 of them. I don’t think people know the real facts.”

Whose facts are real?

Catherine Paykin, standing by the meat counter at Fairway said,

“I wasn’t planning on throwing it out, so that’s a positive thing. As long as I use it and don’t throw it away, that will be my plan.”

Sure, but wash it now and then. And if buying meat, wrap it in plastic and throw the plastic bag out.