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THE POTENTIAL HEALTH RISKS OF REUSABLE GROCERY BAGS

Robert Johnson, Executive Director of the Environmental Safety Alliance

April 23, 2012

[Publisher's Note: As part of an ongoing effort to bring original, thoughtful commentary to you here at the FlashReport, I am pleased to present this column from Robert Johnson, Executive Director of the Environmental Safety Alliance.]

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As an environmental choice, many Californians are now shopping with reusable grocery bags to reduce the amount of plastic going into landfills and escapes into the environment. Many have no choice as communities are essentially requiring the use of reusable bags by outlawing the distribution of single use plastic bags. This is a perfectly reasonable approach to reducing the amount of plastics we consume, but it is important that Californians use reusable grocery bags safely to prevent cross-contamination of food with bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.

California consumers and retail grocery workers are at risk of foodborne illness from contaminated reusable grocery bags. Two studies, one in Canada and one in California, demonstrated the risk of bacteriological contamination from unwashed reusable bags. While neither study found serious nor deadly pathogens, the amount of e coli bacteria found makes the risk of cross contamination very possible. 

State Senator Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) has introduced a reasonable measure that would require manufacturers to include a warning label about the potential health risks associated with unclean reusable bags.  It would also require additional medical research, and an awareness campaign that would require retail outlets to take modest steps to remind the public to wash their reusable bags. 

Now, environmental activists are crying foul. First, because in their opinion, no Republican should introduce a bill to protect—people.  It just doesn’t happen, at least not in California.
Second, environmental activists are whining that medical research, conducted by the University of Arizona, which shows dirty bags can be a public health risk, is incomplete…and unreliable because it was bought and paid for by either the plastics industry or the chemical industry…or both! 

The real story is the environmentalists want to ignore the medical research because it might complicate their plans to ban plastic bags statewide.  After all, if dirty reusable bags are a public health risk, then aren’t we back to the question, “Paper or Plastic?”
Unfortunately, the all-to-cozy relationship between some California grocers and environmental organizations has blinded them from the basic function of government—to protect people. 

They claim the research samples were insufficient or the methodology was off.  So, the grocers, the environmentalists and the liberal activists launch a plan of action.  Attack Strickland. Attack the bill’s sponsor.  Attack the doctors. Attack the research data.  They oppose Strickland’s measure because it scares people or it costs too much to inform customers.  
When will it ever end with these people?  We have to ban plastic bags to protect the oceans because data says so.  We have to believe in global warming, because the science says so.  We have to force people to wear construction hard hats, bike helmets, seat belts, and keep kids in car seats until after college because the research data says so.

Now, when armed with valid medical research on a public health issue, these control freaks look the other way on the science and data…because their politics says so.

SB 1106 is an effort to inform Californians of this risk, educate them on how to avoid it, and provide additional information on the effect of reusable bag use on the public’s health. The bill has three main provisions:

1.    Requires a label on reusable grocery bags and a notice at the check stand that reusable grocery bags need to be sanitized between uses:

WARNING: Reusable bags must be cleaned and disinfected between uses to prevent food cross contamination.  Failure to do so can cause serious illness resulting from food-borne pathogens.

2.    Authorizes a statewide public awareness campaign about the need to follow safe food handling guidelines, emphasizing the need to sanitize reusable grocery bags between uses.

3.    Provides for additional research into the public health effects of reusable grocery bag use in communities in which reusable bags predominate.

California is not alone in trying to address this risk. Health Canada has already issued public alerts about the need to sanitize reusable grocery bags, and the United States Military has recognized the health risk inherent in reusable grocery bags and urged proper sanitary procedures.

Californians have always been eager to understand the risks of environmental and health hazards.  SB1106 is in the same tradition: it does not require broad punitive mandates or inappropriate interference in citizen’s lives, but seeks to learn, inform, and educate. 

Makes you wonder, “What are they so afraid of?”
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Robert Johnson is the Executive Director of the Environmental Safety Alliance.

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