The Next Eco-Trend a Food Safety Nightmare?

June 20, 2011

First is was reusable bags, now it’s reusable containers, but the food safety risk may outweigh the benefits of this trend.

Reusable grocery bags are common place, shoppers have learned to love them, use them, wash them, and even collect them. There have been a few minor issues regarding the safety of reusable grocery totes including unsafe lead found in materials in recycled bags and things like poultry leaking and contaminating the bag and its future contents. Remedied respectively by a recall and tossing the bag into the wash, these once are now non-issues. But the newest eco trend has the Health Department and The Lempert Report up in arms.
The new movement to make local grocery shopping even greener is creating a lot of fear: reusable containers. It's called BYOC, bring your own container, and according to the Chicago Tribune, the process involves bringing glass jars and bottles, plastic tubs, and even cloth bags to the market to fill with bulk foods. The practice is allowed in a handful of places in the US and believed by eco-conscious consumers to reduce waste, avoid advertising, reuse resources, facilitate the purchase of whole foods and save money (often stores offer a small amount of cash back when you bring your own bag or container). Despite all of the supposed benefits, there is a litany of concerns.
The Lempert Report believes there are many problems with bring jars from home to fill in the grocery store. First, the threat of contamination if a jar is previously contaminated and a customer uses it as the scoop, the entire bin is now a risk to other shoppers. On top of that, cross contamination is now a huge issue. How can an operator ensure customers with food allergies or religious food restrictions are able to eat from the same bin? The possible down sides are huge. 
Some retailers are successfully employing the BYOC experience. For instance, San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery allows customers to tote away deli items like ravioli, tofu, pickles and olive oil. Rainbow Grocery staff told the Chicago Tribune that they have never seen a container-related health problem and are clear that customers should wash their own containers, and it is their responsibility.
Overall this eco trend seems like it could cause more harm than good, and the Lempert Report believes stores should be cautious about employing this practice.