Reusing bags might be good for the environment but an industry lobby group has released a preliminary study that suggests such reused bags are dangerous to our health.

A news release issued Thursday by Food Fight Toronto said an independent study out of Guelph found high levels of bacteria and mould in the one sample bag it tested.

From Nov. 1-18, Guelph Chemical Laboratories took a sample swab from a reusable plastic shopping bag and found an elevated bacteria count of 1,800.  A level of 500 is considered safe for water.

"With these counts, the significant presence of coliform and mould especially, you have the potential for bacterial cross-contamination of food," Rupesh Pandey, general manager of Guelph Chemical Laboratories, said in a news release. "It would be similar to carrying your food home in your hands after not washing them all day."

Pandey said the levels are high likely because people don't wash the bags as carefully or as often as they should. He said the bags must be washed in 140 C water to be free of any germs -- a temperature higher than most dishwashers reach (water boils at 100 C).

The bag was taken at random from a shopper leaving a grocery store. It had been in use for one year to transport groceries, said the news release.

"We know that a sample size of one is not enough, but one canary in the tunnel is enough to serve as a warning," said Joe Schwarcz, scientist and Director of the University of McGill Office of Science and Society.

While Food Fight Toronto submitted the sample to the Guelph laboratory, the facility conducted its test independently, said an official with the organization.

The organization is made up of community groups, retailers and residents who are worried city regulations on packaging will lead to increased costs.

Suggested reforms

On Wednesday, Toronto Mayor David Miller said he had the backing of major grocers in imposing a five-cent charge on customers for each plastic bag they use.

"This is a major step forward in our efforts to reduce waste," Miller said. "The city approved a set of recommendations designed for the city to meet its goal. The recommendations are bold but our targets are ambitious and require bold actions."

On Dec. 1, city council will vote on a number of reforms that tackles in-store packaging, waste and litter. Among some of the reforms that are proposed:

  • A ban on the sale of bottled water at civic centres
  • Food retailers who use plastic take-out containers need to develop by 2010 a reuseable/refillable take-out container.

The city would ban the sale or distribution of plastic take-out food containers that are not compatible with Toronto's blue-bin program.

Industry representatives are asking council to reconsider the reforms at next week's council meeting.

'Undermines credibility'

Small grocers and food retailers are vehemently opposed to the proposed changes, arguing the cost of revamping their food containers is too high for the current economic conditions.

Stephanie Jones, the vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said the city has not done enough research on the impact the changes would have on food safety.

"Restaurants can't accept containers in the kitchen if they don't know if they've been washed properly," she said. "The absence of food safety analysis in the report undermines its credibility."

She cautioned that the city and the restaurant industry would be exposed to expensive legal costs if food safety was undermined.

Instead of the reforms, Jones urged the city to move towards expanding their recycling program rather than setting restrictions on vulnerable small businesses.

"These proposals are heading in the wrong direction," she said. "It's adding costs an industry that is already struggling."

However, the city is adamant on reaching its waste-diversion goal.

Miller has vowed to divert 70 per cent of the city's waste from landfills. In 2007, Toronto diverted 42 per cent of its waste.