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Consider food safety when reusing plastic and paper

February 15, 2000

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

cont. from lifestyle

Not according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here's what experts with USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline have to say about these and other food packaging questions consumers often ask.

Question: Is it safe to heat foods in margarine tubs or cottage cheese containers in the microwave?

Answer: No. Cold food-storage containers are intended for those uses only. They have not been tested or approved for any other use, including cooking. Margarine tubs and cottage cheese containers are not heat stable, and chemicals from the plastic may migrate into the food during heating, including microwave heating.

Question: What about the use of plastic and other packaging materials in the microwave oven?

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Answer: Microwave foods in packaging materials only if the package directs, and then use only 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 don't reuse the wrap.

Question: Is it safe to use plastic grocery or trash bags for food storage?

Answer: This is not a recommended practice, especially for plastic trash bags. They generally aren't made of food-grade plastic, and chemicals from them may leach into the food, especially raw food such as fresh produce.

Question: Is it safe to use paper grocery bags for cooking?

Answer: Again, USDA's answer is no. 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.

Question: What about packaging that accidentally gets cooked in a conventional oven, such as the giblet bag inside a turkey?

Answer: The giblet bag and absorbent pad that comes with it clearly are not intended to be cooked. However, if this happens and the packaging materials remain unaltered (that is, they don't melt or come apart), the giblets should not be used, but the turkey is considered safe to eat. However, if the packaging materials have melted or changed shape in any way, experts with USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline recommend against using the turkey for food safety reasons.

For additional information on the safety of food packaging materials, call USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-800-535-4555.


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

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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