Should Reuseable Bags Be Washed?

Root Simple’s stylish new norovirus shopping bag.

Kansas State University’s humorously named Barf Blog has been following the story of a norovirus outbreak related to a reusable grocery bag that sickened 13 members of a soccer team. Norovirus, incidentally, is the most common foodborne illness–when you get food poisoning or the “stomach flu,” odds are that it’s probably norovirus.

So should you wash your reusable bags to prevent norovirus? It’s probably a good idea but, according to Barf Blog, there’s not a lot of evidence about the question–just one study on the matter.

In fact it’s not clear if the bag in this 2010 incident was to blame or the fact that the bag, stuffed with food, spent some time on the floor of the bathroom where, “viral particles likely floated over from the toilet.” Yuck! No wonder the Barf Blog folks avoid potlucks.

So how do you dodge norovirus? Food safety professor Doug Powell, writing for Barf Blog has this list of factoids and suggestions:

1. Norovirus can spread infection through contact with surfaces and objects contaminated by aerosolized particles.
2. Noroviruses are highly contagious, even in low concentration, and the viruses spread efficiently from feces and vomit by direct and indirect contact.
3. Noroviruses are the leading cause of endemic diarrheal disease across all age groups, the leading cause of foodborne disease, and the cause of half of all gastroenteritis outbreaks worldwide.
4. Whenever possible, ill persons should use a separate bathroom to reduce the potential for spread of the virus. Notify family members or cleaning staff about the need for thorough disinfection of surfaces.

There goes my business plan for a combination bathroom/salad bar at the airport! But it does seem like washing hands should be a higher priority than washing reusable bags.

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  1. I’ve washed my bags a couple of times, but they don’t do that well in the washing machine. My super cheap reusable bags really really hate being washed–the seams come apart, the handles get weak, and sometimes they’ve broken after just one wash. We decided to wipe them out with a vinegar solution and call it a day. Seems dumb to destroy bags that are supposed to keep stuff out of landfills.

  2. While these were children mishandling food and storing it inappropriately, I do think reusable bags need to be washed. Mine see duty that includes the inside of a grocery cart, a germy place indeed.

    If a plastic bag has been used for milk or meat, I throw that bag away. So, why would a person not wash the reusable bag used for milk or meat?

    I just think it is generally a good thing to wash most items we drag back and forth to anywhere. My bags are accidentally dropped on the floor, sit in the grocery cart, find their way to the car floor, so they need washing often, just for my peace of mind.

    As for washing hands, I ask the cashier to clean her hands before touching my food on the belt. All have complied willingly. They are probably glad to have a chance to do so.

    Do you wash your hands after gathering eggs? I do. I am not a fanatic, but I wash my hands often.

  3. I periodically wash my bags – even the ones that are technically made of recycled plastic. They go into the washing machine on cold and come out a little more floppy but otherwise fine. All of them get air-dried.

  4. I wash my bags fairly regularly if they’ve had meat in them they go right in the laundry. I think wiping them out with a vinegar solution should suffice though besides the fact you should be washing your fruit and vegetables before you eat them anyway.
    As for the story it sounds like there where more factors involved than just the bag.

  5. The soccer team from the study was here in Oregon, so the local news was all over this story about reusable bags. Critical point: The bag in question was placed in the same bathroom as the infected person who apparently was vomiting off and on for SIX HOURS. My take home message: wash bags if they’ve been around sick folks. Don’t leave them in the bathroom. In general, wash down stuff that’s around people who are vomiting like crazy.

  6. Holy moly. I wash my grocery bags when they’re dirty from being set down on a damp & dirty stoop so I can open the front door or if they’re used to haul dirty dishes from a picnic or party. I wash the ones that haul veggies from the garden to the house when they have actual dirt in them. Frankly, those germs are probably less dangerous than the ones on the stoop, but they’re gritty, which bothers me more.

    I wash my produce before I eat it. The meat I buy tends to be wrapped in plastic and not leaking fluids all over everything. And I cook it before eating it. Lighten up and let your immune system develop. Get out and play in the dirt.

    Full disclosure: I have one heck of an immune system and I’m lucky to have two girls who’ve made it half way through elementary school without a single ear infection and no more than one sick day each year. They’re fully vaccinated but we don’t use any anti-bacterial products other than ointment on cuts.

  7. Noelle, thanks for that detail! I think it speaks to Barf Blog’s point that this may be more about the food in the bathroom than contamination from the bag.

  8. I feel like I should be ashamed to admit that I’ve never washed my canvas grocery bags. But I’m not. I agree with Alexa – use some common sense and don’t store food-related items in a bathroom (especially where someone is vomiting), and give your immune system a little workout. I firmly believe it’s a muscle – it needs exercise or it gets flabby. I wash my produce and cook my meat before eating it. Be smart, but don’t be hysterical.

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