Sunday, June 14, 2009

guilt-inducing tree-hugger excesses?

I have a friend who likes to keep me informed about the latest outrage or ironic event that's circulating on teh internets. The other day she sent me an opinion piece from a local freepaper, The Examiner. Here's the lede and first paras:
Paper, plastic or bacteria for your groceries?

By: Katy Grimes, OpEd Contributor
- | 6/9/09 5:18 AM
Since America seems to be following the path to socialism, our way wouldn’t be complete without another contradictory law from the emotional and irrational left.

For many years paper grocery bags were used with regularity and preferred by consumers and shopkeepers. Trees are a renewable resource, so there was no guilt assigned to paper bag use. Most people have reused paper bags over the years for many purposes; trash and recyclables, book covers, sturdy wrapping for mailing packages, back-of-the-closet-storage for out-of-season shoes, garden cuttings, and even for fruit and vegetable ripening.

When the guilt-inducing tree-huggers invaded the political scene, paper products fell out of political favor and the use of plastic bags was ushered in. In the ensuing years, environmentalists have screamed loudly (again) now that plastic bags are killing aquatic life and filling landfills.

So the eco-cool people flooded farmers markets and grocery stores using the new, chic, cheap, reusable, enviro-friendly shopping bags, made in Asia and transported all the way to the US of cloth, nylon or synthetic fiber.

But wait! The eco-friendly bags may not be so human-hygiene friendly. There are disturbing reports coming out of Canada that the eco-friendly shopping bags are Petri dishes of disgusting bacteria. . . .
A news search turns up some articles taken from the same press release that caught this author's eye. None calls attention to the fact that the study was carried out on behalf of the plastics industry.

A university blog post by a guy called Ben Chapman gives some counterbalancing context. Here's the link and some extracts:
Are reusable bags really a food safety concern?
Posted on May 21, 2009 by Ben Chapman

The Canadian Plastic Industry Association (likely feeling reduced sales due to the popularity of reusable cloth bags) says that reusable bags are a public health risk. In a press release yesterday the plastic dudes touted the results of a bag swabbing study conducted earlier this year. Cited as the first study of its kind in North America, the plastics industry swabbed a whopping 25 bags, with 4 controls looking for anything they could find.

Swab-testing of a scientifically-meaningful sample of both single-use and reusable grocery bags found unacceptably high levels of bacterial, yeast, mold and coliform counts in the reusable bags. The swab testing was conducted March 7-April 10th by two independent laboratories. The study found that 64% of the reusable bags were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than the 500 CFU/mL considered safe for drinking water.

Um, yeah except that coliform isn't an indicator of really anything in a shopping bag. It's a great indicator of water quality, but not great for food (coliforms are all over the place, including on produce). And mean relatively nothing.

The lack of real data is probably why it was reported in CFU/ml (a water measurement -- pretty hard to tell what a ml of a shopping bag represents). The most telling data was that no generic E. coli or Salmonella was found. . . .
Ben says it's best to wash reusable bags every now and then and always wrap meat carefully so it can't come into contact with the bag's fabric.

You can do a search of .gov and .edu sites for other discussions of the plastics industry's findings. My search terms were "contaminated reusable shopping bags." You could also include the phrase "Canadian Plastic Industry Association."

Since I fondly recall the Wayward Press pieces that A. J. Liebling, I'm breaking a rule I've imposed on myself and giving this post a new label. Katy Grimes's piece, is, of course, opinion, but I'd like to be able to expect that even opinion pieces have some modicum of investigation underlying them.

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