PhotoReusable grocery totes are a popular, eco-friendly choice to transport groceries, but only 15 percent of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria, according to a survey by the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods.

It's an issue that is likely to become more urgent as cities and towns encourage -- and, in some cases -- require shoppers to use reusable bags.  The Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal today to charge supermarket customers 10 cents for each paper bag they take on their way out of the checkout line. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana opposed banning paper bags altogether, although he said he doesn't mind banning plastic bags, as another pending proposal would require. Similar debats are going on around the country.

"Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce," says registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman. "Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

Each year, 48 million Americans are affected by food poisoning caused by foodborne pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli.

"Food poisoning can easily be prevented with practical steps, such as cleaning grocery totes and separating raw meats from ready-to-eat foods when shopping, cooking, serving and storing foods," Frechman says.

According to Frechman, bacteria can be eliminated by:

  • Frequently washing your grocery tote, either in the washing machine or by hand with hot, soapy water;
  • Cleaning all areas where you place your totes, such as the kitchen counter;
  • Storing totes in a clean, dry location; and
  • Avoiding leaving empty totes in the trunk of a vehicle.

"When grocery shopping, wrap meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags before placing in the tote, and use two different easy to identify totes; one for raw meats and one for ready-to-eat foods," Frechman says.

It's also important to separate raw meats from ready-to-eat foods when preparing food, she says. To stay safe in the kitchen, use two cutting boards: one strictly to cut raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods, like breads and vegetables.

"Don't confuse them, and always wash boards thoroughly in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher after each use," she says. "Discard old cutting boards that have cracks, crevices and excessive knife scars."

Visit www.homefoodsafety.org for additional safety tips on how to avoid cross-contamination and food poisoning.


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