Are Reusable Containers Unsanitary?

People often ask me if I ever get shot down trying to use my own containers in grocery stores. Generally, the answer is ‘no’, but that’s mostly because I choose to shop where it isn’t an issue. However, just over a year ago, I had a run in at a popular organic food chain that refused to fill my container citing “health reasons”. They weren’t clear on what legislation governed this, but they were pretty sure that there were “health reasons”.

So that got me wondering if there really was a law that said you can’t use reusable containers at the grocery store or in a restaurant. Long story short, I wrote a letter and got bounced around the government a bit before connecting with Tim Lambert at the Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport who, apparently, is responsible for food safety here in BC.

Turns out that using a reusable container is not actually illegal, or even in the ‘not recommended’ category. . .but it is up to the discretion of the store.

I’m hoping that by sharing Mr. Lambert’s response, we will all be a little better equipped for friendly negotiation next time we get confronted about reusable containers.  (Failing that, I think we should all make official looking ID cards that say “this person has been approved to use their own container and takes full responsibility for any health issues stemming from such use” and practice flashing them at the deli counter.)

. . . There is no provision within the Food Premises Regulation that specifically prohibits the use of reusable containers. Section 12 mandates that an operator must (a) protect food from contamination; and, (b) store, handle, prepare, display, and dispense food in a sanitary manner.  Some food premises may allow or even encourage the use of reusable containers for environmental benefits or cost-saving potential. However, some may interpret the regulation in such a way that reusable containers prevent operators from keeping food and the premise sanitary.  Some opportunity for cross contamination exists, such as with grocery store delis that place containers on weighing scales or restaurants bringing containers into the kitchen area, which is probably why some food premises may interpret the regulation to prohibit this type of activity.

I agree that reducing packaging is an important environmental concern and encourage the use of reusable items where their use does not create public health concerns.  Although a food premises’ policy will be informed by their interpretation of the legislation, I would encourage you to speak with the operators of the food premises you frequent and try to reach a solution. You may wish to share a copy of this email with them.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Yours truly,

Tim Lambert
Executive Director
Health Protection”

(image: http://www.innate-gear.com/)

15 Comments

Filed under reusable containers

15 responses to “Are Reusable Containers Unsanitary?

  1. Kaylen

    Thanks for looking this up! I’ve had both experiences and I, too, just tend to avoid the places that won’t let me reuse containers.

    At Bulk Barn I find that if I bring something I don’t need a tare weight (in this case, a dog treat bag I was reusing) on they don’t bother arguing with me when I get to the checkout. They won’t record a tare weight if I ask for it at the beginning, citing health codes, though. Might be a good reason to get some thin, organic cotton bags to refill. (I normally refill glass jars.)

    • Kaylen – you taught me a new word! Tare weight. I actually had to look it up. Nice one! Glass jars are great – Grant uses one for getting his coffee, but I find at my local grocers, there is often a line up, so I don’t want to wait in line twice – once for the tare weight and once to pay. I have heard of people just marking their jars with the weight and using all the same kind so there’s no confusion.

  2. You’ve totally inspired me – thank you! I’ve been wondering about this too and I’ve been refused on the ‘health and safety’ line and wondered whether there was any mileage in it. I never thought to contact the big boys to find out for sure. It will be interesting to compare answers!

  3. Brooke

    I agree you have brought some very useful information to light!!

    I would think using your own container would be much like taking your own mug or travel cup to your favourite coffee shop! Maybe if more consumers used there own containers it wouldn’t seem so unusual. I find employees to be quite abrupt and defensive if they have never encountered this request before.

    • JR

      Excellent point. Consider that your filthy (mine always is), travel mug will be taken as-is, by unwashed hands, filled and recapped. I’m glad of this and hope no regulations intervene; but why not let me bring my own container for, for example, fresh mozzarella – which is often sitting out under insufficient cover in the grocery store, (and I worry more about contaimination here from people sticking their faces over it).

  4. Hi Jenny!

    I was totally busted using a Moukinet mesh bag at Bulk Barn this summer!
    Fortunately, it was a very friendly woman who was attending me and explained the reasoning. It is not so much that I was claiming it was sanitary for my OWN use, the problem is when folks get up to the cash register, find out the price for the food, and then refuse to pay. If someone had scooped $30 of goji berries in to their own bag but then didn’t want to pay that much, the store would have to throw it away.

    So now I am just more stealth about it… I keep reusing the bags that have the store name written all over them!

    Congratulations on your sold-out screening in Vancouver!

    -Shelby

    • Really? That’s the reason you can’t use your own bags? I have never in my life scooped bulk and then decided not to buy it!

      • Me neither!
        I even asked if I PROMISED to purchase whatever value I ended up with and she still said they didn’t want that… because other people would see me using my own bags and think they could too.
        Oy!

  5. Clara

    I was busted at Bulk Barn as well, but for a different reason. The cashier was really nice and very quickly rung up my purchases in my re-used bags from a different store and had me put them in my purse before anyone saw me. She said if her manager had seen, the whole purchase would have been dumped in the garbage, like the manager had done to a customer earlier that week. The cashier said it was because of possible cross-contamination. I assumed she meant because of the scoop going into my bag and then back into the bin, bringing allergens from my bag into the bulk bin. I wish I had asked if it was a store policy instead of just agreeing to be careful. Allergy issues are serious of course but I was pretty disappointed because I had just ordered my moukinet bags and was anxiously awaiting their arrival to use at Bulk Barn. I’ll just use them at the farmers market now. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t find out the hard way and have my Moukinet bags thrown out.

    • I totally understand that allergies can be an issue, but I’m thinking that people with life threatening allergies don’t shop in the bulk section for that very reason. Anyway, I think the stealth method is the way to go.

  6. Pingback: Strocel.com | Disposable Plastic, Cross-Contamination and Sustainability

  7. Pingback: A letter from the government about reusable containers. « stephaniegetsridofhercrap

  8. I find in Canada barely anyone accepts me using my own containers at grocery stores. Even the health food stores I have looked at can’t weight my containers. Any ideas why this is Canada?

    • I agree, most tills aren’t set up to tare your container (or they don’t know how to use them). I just bring the lightest container I can and eat the cost. Meat counters and deli counters know how to tare though.

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