How Food Safe Are Reusable Shopping Bags?

Reusable shopping bags are great news for the environment, but care must be taken to prevent causing food-borne illness from their use.
November 30, 2016
By Danielle Cullen

The Queensland government recently announced that it will be introducing a ban on plastic shopping bags from 2018. 

This brings the state in line with South Australia, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania that already have such bans in place. There is increasing pressure on New South Wales and Victoria to do the same.

There’s no doubt that plastic bags pose an environmental issue for Australia with over 150 million plastic bags ending up as litter every year. As well as being unsightly, many of these plastic bags end up in our waterways harming and killing marine life.

But if you are to use reusable shopping bags, how do you ensure that the food you purchase and carry is safe to eat?

The Health Hazards of Reusable Bags

Unfortunately, reusable bags can provide a good breeding ground for bacteria to grow. Small numbers of bacteria transferred from an exposed food item to the bag can start to reproduce and multiply - especially when the bags are stored in damp, warm conditions such as under the kitchen sink.

By the time the bag is reused days or weeks later the bacteria may have reached levels that are harmful to human health and these bacteria can be transferred onto new food items purchased on the next shopping trip.

How to Handle Reusable Bags Safely

The hazards associated with reusable bags shouldn't put you off using them. By following a few simple rules you can protect yourself and your family from food safety hazards associated with their use. 

Rule 1. Wash reusable shopping bags frequently

If your reusable shopping bags are made of cloth, you should wash them in the washing machine with laundry detergent and then put them in the drier or allow them to air dry. If there are any plastic components on your reusable bags then wash them by hand using warm, soapy water.

Rule 2. Use different bags for different types of food

Keep one bag for raw meat products, another bag for raw fruit and vegetables, and another for packaged and ready-to-eat items. An easy way to achieve this is by using different coloured bags or by writing on your bags with a marker pen.

Rule 3. Don’t keep food in the bags for too long

Make your food shopping trip the last chore that you do before going home, and unpack quickly when you arrive home. Food that requires refrigeration must be put away within a maximum of two hours to prevent bacteria reaching harmful levels.

Rule 4. Keep shopping bags in a suitable place

Choose a location that is cool and dry for storing reusable shopping bags - and don’t store them in your car. Research has found that boots of cars can be good incubators for bacteria. Be sure that shopping bags are fully dry after washing before you put them away.

Rule 5. Don’t use the bags for other purposes

Don’t use reusable shopping bags to transport other items such as shoes, gym clothes or paperwork. By doing so, you could be introducing bacteria to the bags which can cross-contaminate food at a later stage.

Rule 6. Clean surfaces where the bags have been placed

When you’ve unpacked and put away your reusable bags, be sure to clean and/or sanitise any counters or tables where you’ve placed the bags. This prevents cross-contamination to food that you prepare later from any bacteria that was on the outside of the bag.