Reusable shopping bags: dangerous breeding grounds for bacteria and mould! So exclaimed an alarmed correspondent in the Chronicle letters section, right in the middle of Plastic-Free July.

The first thing I thought was not, "Hmm, how long since I washed my shopping bags?" Rather, who paid for that research?

Because news is very often not what it seems. With the world in such a mess and so much at stake, it's never been more important to read critically and dig deeper.

Everything about the sped-up pace of social media, online news and infotainment undermines careful reading and thoughtful analysis.


Far easier and more gratifying to respond with instinctive outrage (or glee or self-righteousness) and retweet or share information without thinking twice.

The letter to the editor reported: "Sydney health experts are warning that reusable shopping bags are perfect breeding grounds for E, coli, yeast and mould."

It didn't take long to find a clutch of news stories by Australian media outlets on this topic, look up the academic research they cited and (crucially) discover who funded that research.

No surprises as to who I found paying the bills: industry lobby groups representing the manufacturers of single-use plastic and right-wing think tanks that deny climate change.

Blame my scepticism on insider knowledge.

Once upon a time, I was a public relations consultant and manager. My weighty textbooks on communications theory are packed away now, but a small paperback with an unlikely title made a big impression and it still sits on a shelf to hand.

Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry was written in 1995. That's before the internet as we know it, so it's massively out of date but its core ideas remain pertinent and it's still in print.

There's a chapter on "Poisoning the Grassroots" that shocked me then; it's business as usual now.


Front organisations, often charities, are furtively established and funded by industry interests and made to look like authentic, citizen-led grassroots movements.

Add to that mounting pressure on scientists and researchers to bring in funding for their work and increasing corporate influence on academic institutions.

Take the crop of 2016 stories about germs in reusable shopping bags. It was a gleeful media echo-chamber, with all the stories rehashing the same American study: "Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags".

The study is no longer online, but a media release by the university can still be found.

The study sampled a whopping 84 bags - yes, I'm being sarcastic - and it was underwritten by The American Chemistry Council.

That body exists to promote the interests of companies "engaged in the business of chemistry", including plastics industries. It lobbies against banning the use of single-use shopping bags.

Our current era sees President Trump appoint climate-change deniers and fossil-fuel lobbyists to steer the Environmental Protection Agency. A more breathtaking example of putting poachers in charge of the game estate could not be dreamed up.

His attack dogs circle and chant "fake news, fake news" in response to any coverage that criticises Trump, no matter its accuracy. It's Orwellian how fake news in the Trump camp includes any inconvenient truth that makes them look bad.

And meanwhile the scale of false and misleading statements spewing from Trump himself is racheting up - he managed 79 such statements in just one day ( July 5) according to the Washington Post Fact Checker Database.

Never have we been so awash in lies and deception.

Hygiene tips for packing food in bags

Cynicism about this research aside, of course you should take some basic care with how you cart food around.

It's a good idea to pack meat and vegetables in separate bags; use different colours or bag types to remind you which is for what.

Use bags that carry food only for that purpose — don't also use them for dog leads, gym gear, childrens' toys etc.

Don't leave them in the car, especially in hot weather. That's the perfect condition for bacterial growth.

Do wash your bags on occasion; 100% cotton will hold up to a hot wash better than the common nonwoven polypropylene bags (the green Countdown bags are an example of this sort). You're stuck with hand-washing those.

I don't want to hand wash anything, so pack my scant supermarket haul into a cardboard box, which then serves as a fire-starter, a cat toy or food for my worm farm.

Otherwise I use nylon bags, which take up no space in my handbag so they are always to hand when I need them. They are easy to wash and dry almost instantly.

It's nice to hear that my neighbourhood butcher in Whanganui East is seeing both new and existing customers turn up with their own containers to buy their fresh cuts of meat, in an effort to reduce their use of single-use plastic.

But please don't be tempted to show up with a reused plastic bag. That's not a good idea when it comes to carrying and storing meat.

Washing plastic makes it leach chemicals and it's hard to get plastic bags completely clean. Use a BPA-free, food-safe plastic container or, better still, a glass container — and make sure it's sparkling.

■Rachel Rose is a local writer and organiser. She ran a workshop called Freeing Food From Plastic during Whanganui's Plastic Free July programme and is available to run the free workshop for schools and community groups -- Visit for some sensible tips about reusable shopping bags (and a pile of references).