Saturday, May 30, 2009

It's in the Bag

On May 20th, the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) released the report, “A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and ‘First or single-use’ Plastic Bags.” The study made immediate headlines with its conclusion that reusable bags can become “an active microbial habitat and breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.”

Before you send all your reusable bags to a hazardous waste facility for proper disposal, it’s important to separate fact from conjecture, and science from self-serving interpretation. It’s also critical to understand who is behind the report and why it was commissioned.

For starters, just because the “E” stands for Environment, doesn’t alter the fact that EPIC is a committee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. This is the same industry that has seen a rapid decline in the demand for single-use disposable bags. According to the Sierra Club of Canada, as of January 2009, Canadians were using about 55 million plastic bags per week. That’s a huge market to lose.

Secondly, although the studies contained in the report were conducted by so-called independent testing laboratories, the conclusions are more anecdotal than scientific, and are peppered with many conditional words such as “can”, “should”, “suggests” and “could”. Any first year biology student would get a failing grade for making such unspecific conclusions on a lab report.

It’s also important to recognize that the samplings are random and too small to be statistically significant. This might explain why the anecdotal terminology was used.

Here’s a look at some of the conclusions:

The test findings clearly support concerns that reusable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.

Can or are? The same observation can be made about the average kitchen counter. More to the point, most Canadians have enough common sense to wash their hands and their food before preparing it.

The unacceptable presence of coliforms, that is, intestinal bacteria, in some of the bags tested, suggests that forms of E. coli associated with severe disease could be present in small but a significant portion of the bags if sufficient numbers were tested. Also, it is consistent with everything that is known about Salmonella ecology that it would also be present on rare occasions.

This conclusion was made despite the fact that the Topline Findings of the same report stated that, “E.coli and salmonella were not present.” The Specific Results of the Second Round of Swab Testing also stated that, “No E. coli or Salmonella was detected in any of the bags.”

This study provides strong evidence that reusable bags could pose a significant risk to the safety of the food supply if used to transport food from store to home.

“Could” and “if” are both conditional terms. Used in the same sentences, the conclusion is nothing more than empty alarmism.

The swab testing demonstrates that single use plastic shopping bags and other first use carry bag options are more hygienic than reusables.

This is simply a statement of the obvious. It’s reasonable to assume that items that haven’t been exposed to bacteria aren’t as likely to be contaminated.

The recommendations contained in the report highlight “the gravity of the results” and the need for more research. On that we can agree. However, I would hope that the next round of studies won’t be paid for by the industry that has a vested interest in the results.

For example, Recommendation #2 is identified as “an immediate priority” and calls for all meat to be “packed in a first-use (translation: plastic) bag to prevent accidental leakage or drips into the reusable bag.”

To make sure that this happens it is recommended that, “This should become a mandated safety standard across the entire grocery industry for reusable bags.”

The report also recommends that family doctors and public health officials should add reusable bags to the list of sources of food poisoning.

The report goes on - and so could I. Bottom line: Use proper food handing practices. If you don’t already, wash reusable bags regularly in mild soap and vinegar (a natural disinfectant). Hang bags to dry inside out, preferably on the clothesline. Sunlight is both a natural bleach and a disinfectant.

That’s not science. It’s common sense.


For a complete copy of the report, “A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and ‘First or single-use’ Plastic Bags”, go to visit the EPIC website and look under “What’s New.”


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