July 16, 2024

E. coli Infections Spike After Plastic Bag Ban in California

A study published by the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University found that a ban on plastic bags by the city of San Francisco has led to an increase in E. coli infections. In the three months since the ban, deaths from foodborne illness in that city spiked by 46%.

E coliWith plastic bags forbidden, consumers are using reusable bags. While that’s great for the environment, most people don’t know that the bags should be washed regularly. When they are not washed, they become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. The study’s authors said, “using standard estimates of the statistical value of life, we show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter.”

In fact, the study found that relative to other counties, deaths in San Francisco increased by 50 to 100%, and emergency room visits by a comparable amount. The same bans on plastic bags in other California cities showed similar effects.

The ordinance contains details about the requirements for reusable bags. They must have a life greater than 125 uses, and be capable of carrying at least 22 pounds over a distance of at least 175 feet. They must also be durable enough so they can be washed and disinfected at least 100 times.

Another study published in 2011 in Food Protection Trends found that 51% of all reusable grocery bags contain coliform bacteria, which indicate the presence of feces. In addition, most people do not use separate bags for raw meat and for ready-to-eat foods, including fresh vegetables and fruit. The same study showed that 97% of consumers said they never wash their reusable grocery bags.

And according to Sustainable Living at the University of Connecticut, 40% of those bags harbor molds and yeast that can trigger allergic reactions and infections. Almost 2/3 of reusable bags were contaminated with some type of bacteria.

The lesson in all of this is if you use reusable grocery bags, wash them. Frequently. Some bags are machine washable; others are not. Wash them with warm water and soap and turn them inside out to air dry. Also, use a separate bag for carrying raw meats, poultry, and fish the next time you shop. And always use the bags for groceries only.



  1. A bit odd, the authors being professors of law (Wright, antitrust and patent law, Klick actually has some experience in health issues, though I see he authored a paper whose conclusions oppose the CDC’s position on teenage pregnancy termination access) and not epidemiologists; some of the comparisons are apples to oranges, or at least, there’s no mention of the esp. awful strain of E coli, any E coli can cause upper GI distress but isn’t likely to kill; organisms that can kill are probably among the deaths from infectious intestinal conditions cited but there are a lot of non food borne conditions that would necessarily be lumped in there. Raw numbers would also be useful, if we’re talking a change from say 6 to 8 deaths, it sounds larger at a 25% increase than would an increase of two. I’d like to see some medical opinions on this study.

  2. Do the people need to be told that the reusable bags must be cleaned regularly? As a child growing up in India, this was not a major problem. Every one recycled their clothes, & the unwearable ones were sewed into fabric bags for groceries & were washed regulary. And, hand washing & washing the produce too was absolutely required. Another thing that helped was that the kitchens were free standing rooms not inside the home. Connected to it, but not accessible from inside. The second thing was that footware was not allowed in the kitchen. In the cold winters, when we had no heat, the footware was removed outside & a separete pair, the was inside the kitchen, was worn. When leaving the kitchen, the foot wear was changed again. The one worn insire the kitchen was not allowed to be taken out & the one worn outside wasn’t allowed in. All that added extra protection from the germs. No one was allowed to enter the kitchen without washing hands first. Now I realize that that made a whole lot of sense. As did the requirement by some families, for those cooking the food to have their head covered, which the women’s lib people & the “modern westernized” Indians called suffocating & old fashioned. How ridiculous to call simple hygiene practices to be discarded in the name of “westernization”

    • Linda Larsen says

      Those are all excellent practices. And yes, unfortunately, people have to be told to wash those bags, since 97% of consumers do not. I don’t think that “westernization” has anything to do with it. Most people are just too busy trying to keep their heads above water to think about washing grocery bags. I have a degree in Food Science and another in biology and I didn’t know that washing reusable bags was so necessary until recently.

      • I think it does have to do with “westernization” or at least being used to disposable products. I never thought about NOT washing my cloth shopping bags. They go in the laundry every week with the cloth napkins, cloth dish towels, and dishcloths. A lot of people will use a sponge for months without sanitizing it. Nasty. Easy enough to throw it in a dishwasher/microwave/pot of boiling water for a few minutes. I love the idea of the freestanding kitchen — especially in the heat of summer — and leaving one’s dirty shoes outside. Sometimes the old rules were there for a reason.

  3. This is disturbing. The meat products should not be carrying pathogenic e-coli to begin with.

    • Shawna,

      Please read responses below. E. coli is a NATURALLY occurring pathogen. Please do some research on this. They are not buying “tainted meat” in fact… you have E. coli inside you every day….

      • Linda Larsen says

        While E. coli is everywhere, the type of E. coli that causes disease should not be on meat or in any food product in enough quantities to make people sick. That is against the law. Meat contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 IS tainted.

        • Not exactly, pathogenic E.coli is acceptable on RAW intact meat because it is meant to be COOKED. It’s only considered adulterated if the meat is tenderized, pinned, ground or otherwise, where bacteria may be introduced below the surface. Whole-muscle beef steak can be raw and bloody on the inside because the bacteria is only on the outside of the steak, not inside. In ground beef however, the bacteria is all mixed in and if your beef patty is bloody in the middle, cook it more, because the bacteria could still be alive in the center if it hasn’t been hot enough, long enough.

          • Linda Larsen says

            Not quite. If there is enough of any bacteria on a food to make someone sick, that food is considered adulterated and must be recalled. In Canada, the CFIA recalled whole muscle cuts of meat in the huge XL Foods recall last year. But you’re right about everything else.

  4. Andy Halvorsen says

    sounds like natural selection

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