Expert: Reusable grocery bags a breeding ground for germs

Expert: Reusable grocery bags a breeding ground for germs

By Fox 4 News Staff. CREATED Jul 25, 2012 - UPDATED: Jul 25, 2012

WFTX - Trying to go green? Re-usable grocery bags are a good way to start-- but be careful, or you could end up putting your family's health at risk.

Paco Diaz gave up plastic grocrey bags years ago. Instead, he brings his own to the store every week.

"We feel like we're contributing towards a healthier environment," he explained. However, we found that healthier environment... isn't necessarily healthier for your family.

Why? Lisa Berger, a food safety expert, did some testing and concluded reusable bags can become a breeding ground for bacteria.

"A lot of times the bags can become contaminated with different types of bacteria such as coliform or e coli," she explained. Both of those can make you miserable with stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. And one particular strain of e coli can kill you.

Testing the bags for germs

We asked the International Center for Food Industry Excellence to test the reusable bags for us. The team tested eight used bags and three brand new ones as controls.

Mindy Brashears, the director of the center, was in charge of the testing process.

"Coliforms and generic e coli are things that we look for, as scientists, that indicate some kind of contamination has occurred," she explained.

The new bags were spotless. But half of the used bags, we found, were contaminated with coliform bacteria. Half of those were tainted with e coli. So how did it get there? We asked Brashears.

"They were probably used to carry fruits and vegetables - perhaps they were un-bagged - or it could have been some type of animal product, whether it be dairy products, eggs or meat product," she explained those results.

Tips to keep your family safe

But before you toss your bags, keep reading. The experts also suggested easy ways to keep the germs at bay.

First, designate certain bags for meat and others for produce and ready-to-eat foods, to avoid cross contamination.

"Because they are raw products, the bacteria such as e-coli, possibly salmonella, can contaminate these bags and then later can contaminate other fruits and vegetables that are placed in these bags," elaborated Lisa Berger.

Berger also suggested you wash the bags regularly, dry them completely and then store them in a clean place away from animals and plants.

Diaz was shocked to learn the bags he used were contaminated. And says he'll be washing them regularly from now on.

"I was surprised to have a bag that was incredibly filthy! Or just had tons of germs - that was surprising," he admitted.

There have been no reported outbreaks of illness associated with the bags.

But food safety experts say you need to take the precautions they advised.