Chicago, IL—Reusable tote bags are an eco-friendly way to shop, but many users are putting themselves at risk with the way they use them, according to a survey conducted by Home Food Safety program, a joint effort between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods. Apparently, one in six, or 15% of consumers do not regularly cleanse their reusable bags before bringing them back to the store. This practice creates fertile ground for harmful bacteria and can lead to food poisoning, the Academy says.

The survey was conducted online in April of 2011, and included 1,000 participants, according to Ruth Frechman, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The age range was 20-75, and respondents were required to be primary household shoppers, responsible for preparing the main meal for the household three or more days a week. Another problem cited by the survey takers, aside from placing new groceries into unclean bags, is the potential for cross-contamination when items like raw meats are placed alongside ready-to-eat items such as bread or fresh produce. The solution is to use multiple bags to keep these items separate, and to use plastic bags as liners to keep raw foods from contaminating reusable totes.

Consumers should be advised, meanwhile, to wash their reusable bags with hot, soapy water by hand, or in a washing machine. Tote bags should also be stored in a clean and dry location, and, says Frenchman, “Don’t keep the totes in the trunk of the car or other hot places where bacteria multiplies quickly. If you see that raw juices are on the grocery tote, wash it immediately.” Annually, according to the Academy, 48 million Americans are affected by food poisoning that stems from foodborne pathogens like salmonella and listeria.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2012