There’s more to consider when it comes to food safety than just the bag.
With cities like Chicago implementing a 7-cent tax on plastic and paper bags, and metro areas from Boston to San Francisco imposing a citywide ban on plastic bags, there’s a nationwide movement toward eliminating single-use plastics. It’s become nearly shameful to show up at Whole Foods without an armful of reusable tote bags in which to carry your groceries home. But one thing that hasn’t gone away (yet) are the rolls of thin plastic produce bags found in supermarkets, designed to contain everything from fruits and vegetables to meats, baked goods and bulk items. After all, they’re a necessity, right?
In January, the New York Times reported that the Italian government had banned the use of plastic produce bags, instead swapping in eco-friendly, biodegradable and compostable alternatives—and charging 1 to 3 cents each. Met with outrage from consumers, Italy’s Health Ministry declared consumers could bring their own bags from home, provided they’d never been used, citing risk of bacterial contamination. (In hindsight, that seems a little misguided.)
Right now, however, U.S. supermarkets don’t have big plans to eliminate or swap out plastic produce bags (except for Kroger, which pledged in August to eliminate all plastic bags from its nearly 2,800 stores by 2025)—perhaps for one big reason.
“The produce bags in our stores provide guests a convenient and effective means of protecting fresh produce from being introduced to bacteria that may be present in a shopping cart, on the checkout register conveyor or within a reusable shopping bag,” says Vic Savanello, vice president of produce for The Fresh Market, a grocery chain with more than 150 locations around the country.
If you haven’t already heard, the level of bacteria found in most grocery stores is pretty gross. A study from tote-bag company Reuse This Bag found that traditional grocery store produce contains about 1,940 colony-forming units per square inch (that’s 746 times more bacteria than a car steering wheel), and budget grocery store produce was is way worse, containing around 5.6 million CFU/square inch. Even “upscale” grocery stores had really dirty produce: 3.3 million CFU/square inch (more than 11 times what you’d find on a pet’s food bowl—yuck!).
Add in even more disgusting stats on bacteria from cart handles and refrigerator case doors, and you’ll practically want to shop in gloves to protect yourself. (Read: You might want to start using those antibacterial wipes often offered near the cart bays, if you’re not already.)
Consider the typical path of, say, a red pepper you’re buying for your dinner recipe. The more times the pepper is touched, the more germs it collects. So you might pick up the pepper and place it in your cart, then touch it again to put it on the conveyor belt at checkout. Then the cashier handles it again to weigh it, setting it down on a produce scale that’s also very dirty. It’s handled yet again being put into a bag to transfer it home, and if that’s a reusable tote bag that you haven’t washed in awhile, it’s picking up even more bacteria there—especially if you’ve used it to transport extra-germy items like raw meats in the past. And that’s nothing to say about how many times the pepper was handled before it even got to the display in the store (even though the USDA and FDA both have rigorous rules regarding produce safety).
While plastic produce bags may save you from bacteria in a few steps along the way, they won’t help you eliminate germs. Any way you look at it, the hard-and-fast truth is that before consuming that pepper, or any produce, you need to wash it—and wash it well.
The FDA recommends washing your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before even starting to prep produce, then rinsing the produce under running water before peeling or cutting the item—even if you aren’t going to consume the peel, like a lemon or orange—so bacteria aren’t transferred as you cut into it. A clean vegetable brush may be used to scrub firm produce, like melons or carrots, and you should always dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria. Furthermore, the FDA advises discarding the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
Cutting down on use of plastic bags, even the thin ones used for produce, has a more positive impact on the environment. Yet overall, using plastic produce bags offered at grocery stores (or bringing your own) still makes for a less messy shopping experience.
“[Using produce bags] helps improve the overall cleanliness of the shopping environment,” says Savanello, “preventing produce from dripping or breaking in the shopping cart or at the register.”
Less drips from dirty fruits or raw meats in both carts and at the register is a good thing for all shoppers, whether they’re using produce bags or not. The bottom line: not using produce bags might introduce your products to more germs, but you’re going to wash them anyway.