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Be careful about recycling containers for food storage

May 20, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

In the spirit of "reuse or recycle," many of us feel good when we microwave leftovers in plastic margarine tubs we've saved or when we reuse plastic grocery bags as food-storage containers. Both are ecologically sound practices, but are they safe practices?

According to United States Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline, the answer is No!

Cold storage food containers are intended for those uses only. They have not been tested or approved for any other use. Margarine tubs and cottage cheese containers are not heat stable, and chemicals from the plastic may migrate into the food during heating, especially in the microwave. Use only microwave safe plastic containers.

Be careful about microwaving foods in packaging materials other than ones that specifically designate use for microwaving and then only use them one time. Materials suitable for microwaving include oven bags, wax paper, and plastic wrap. However, make sure the plastic wrap doesn't touch the food and then don't reuse it! A waxed paper liner from a cereal box will work nicely as a cover or wrap for microwaving foods, but it should only be used one time.


It is also not safe to use plastic grocery bags or trash bags for food storage. They generally are not made of food-grade plastic, and chemicals from them may leach into the food, especially raw foods such as fresh produce.

Paper grocery bags are not safe for cooking. Grocery bags are not intended or formulated for cooking foods. Levels of components, such as metal fragments, glue, and chemicals may be present at higher than acceptable limits and can migrate into the food. These bags may not be sanitary, particularly since they're stored under a variety of conditions.

Forget the giblets?

Another problem can be packaging that accidentally gets cooked in a conventional oven, such as the giblet bag inside a turkey. The giblet bag and absorbent pad that comes with it are not intended to be cooked. However, if this happens and the packaging material remains unaltered - it doesn't melt or come apart - the giblets should not be used, but the turkey surrounding it is considered safe to eat. However, if the packaging materials have melted or changed shape in any way, do not use the turkey.

If you would like information on the safety of food packaging materials, call USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. Or call Cooperative Extension Service Washington County office at 301-791-1504 for answers to your food safety questions. When you call, request a copy of "A Quick Consumer Guide to Safe Food Handling."

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension agent, home economics, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

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