NYAGS Brad Gerstman: The City Council’s plan to promote E. coli

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New York City’s do-gooders are at it again, this time looking to put a 10-cent fee on each plastic bag that stores normally provide to their customers without charge.

This isn’t just another burden on the city’s beleaguered small retailers, it’s also a terrible idea for public health.

When then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg pushed a similar proposal a few years back, it never even got a hearing. But the new bill already has 19 City Council members signed on as co-sponsors.

And Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris told WNYC radio this month that the fee is a direction the de Blasio administration is “very supportive of.”

I long ago lost count of how many regulations of the past decade have unintended, bad consequences that hit the city’s small retailers the hardest.

These beleaguered store owners already face an army of enforcement agents who treat them like a cash cow. The city’s bids to promote “the public good” never take into consideration the health of these stores or the neighborhood economies that they support.

Our local army of regulators belongs to what the author Saul Bellow called the Good Intentions Paving Co.

This company’s projects are always well-meant, but when they turn out to have undesired costs, tradeoffs and side-effects, the company leaders sincerely believe that none of the blame can possibly attach to them. After all, their intentions were good!

The irony here is that the bag fee poses a direct threat to New Yorkers’ health.

The point of the bag tax is to force consumers to substitute reusable bags for the no-longer-free plastic ones.

Problem is, reusable bags play a significant role in food contamination unless they’re properly washed on a regular basis — something people rarely do.

In a public-health study done at the University of Arizona, researchers found that only 3 percent of shoppers with multi-use bags said they regularly washed them. The same study found bacteria in 99 percent. Half carried coliform bacteria, and 8 percent carried E. coli — an indicator of fecal contamination.

“I classify them as pretty dirty things, like the bottom of your shoes,” said Ryan Sinclair of the Loma Linda University School of Public Health, a co-author of the study.

As the study showed, the reusable bags function as a Petri dish for all kinds of contaminants. Further, three-fourths of their users acknowledged that they don’t use separate bags for meats and for vegetables, and about a third said they used the bags for, well, all sorts of things (storing snacks, toting books).

A study by the Centers for Disease Control verified the dangers: “Reusable bags, if not properly washed between uses, create the potential for cross-contamination of foods.

“This potential exists when raw meat products and foods traditionally eaten uncooked (fruits and vegetables) are carried in the same bags, either together or between uses. This risk can be increased by the growth of bacteria in the bags.”

What about the environmental benefit? At best, it’s smaller than the do-gooders imagine.

It takes less energy to make plastic bags than the canvas ones that the “reusers” usually push — and, in fact, consumers find multiple post-store uses for the plastic, from in-home trash bags to padding in a storage box.

Yes, most wind up in the garbage eventually — but before we restrict them, let’s figure out ways to make plastic-bag recycling more efficient — something that the Department of Sanitation has failed to do.

Polls throughout the country find that people overwhelmingly reject bans and regressive taxes. Imagine the results if people knew more about the health threat posed by reusable bags.

Let’s shelve the bag fee and search for better ways to aid the environment that don’t burden our small businesses and threaten our citizens’ health.

Brad Gerstman is a lawyer, lobbyist and co-founder of the New York Association of Grocery Stores.

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