Safe food-handling practices start at the grocery store. Placing packaged meat in a plastic produce bag decreases cross-contamination risk, but what about the environment? Learn how to safely handle packaged meat—and about sustainable bio-based packaging.
person holding package of meat over grocery cart
Credit: Getty Images / Oscar Wong

When shopping for packaged meats, have you ever thought about putting the meat into a plastic produce bag? While doing so helps prevent juices from leaking onto other groceries, using an additional plastic bag may have a negative environmental impact, right? Read on to find out more from two food-safety experts. Plus, learn about sustainable packaging.

Why should you bag your packaged meat? 

Whether you buy fresh meat from the butcher's counter, where they wrap it in food-grade kraft paper, or you purchase packaged raw meat in food-grade plastic labeled with a safe food handling sticker (informing you how to store, prepare and handle raw meat and poultry products at home), placing the wrapped meat in plastic produce bags adds an extra layer of protection. "Using plastic bags to bag prepackaged raw meats … at the grocery store can help to avoid cross-contamination," says Mindy Costello, a registered sanitarian at NSF (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation). "Blood or juices may drip from the package to other items in your basket or cart." 

According to Costello, bagging packaged raw meat can also help keep it at a cooler temperature, simply adding an extra layer of insulation, which is essential when transporting groceries from store to home.

How to safely handle meat, from store to home

If meat is on your grocery list, Costello suggests shopping for your nonperishables first, such as canned and dry goods, then produce, and finishing with raw meats, poultry, seafood and dairy products. She adds, "Buy your meat last to keep it cold for as long as possible. Look to see that the meat package is cool to the touch and has no punctures."

How you place your items in the grocery cart also matters. "Try to keep meat products away from other items in your basket or cart while shopping and waiting at the checkout line," says Costello. If your cart is full, bagging your packaged meats is highly recommended to avoid possible cross-contamination of raw juices dripping from the package to other items.

If you won't be home for more than one hour, Costello advises asking the store for ice or a cold pack to keep your meat cold. You can also bring your own ice pack and/or insulated bag or small soft cooler. Once you're home, keep the meat separate from other items in your refrigerator, ideally storing it on the bottom shelf. "Keeping it in the plastic bag or closed container can also help avoid cross-contamination at home," says Costello.

Bio-based packaging for a sustainable future

Using plastic bags to hold your meat is an excellent safeguard from a food-safety perspective, but it raises environmental concerns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 4.2 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were produced in 2018, with only 0.42 million tons, or 10% percent, recycled. More than 70% of unrecycled plastics went straight to landfills. 

Bio-based packaging may be one way to reduce plastic waste. "Bio-based packaging is made from renewable raw materials that have a direct or indirect natural origin," says Carol Zweep, consulting and technical services manager at NSF. Bio-based packaging can include various types of materials. Paper and cardboard are bio-based materials, as they are made mainly from wood. There are bio-based plastics too, such as polylactic acid (PLA), which is used to make food packaging, compost bags and disposable tableware. Another type of bio-based plastic, bio-based polyethylene, is an ingredient in bottles and bags. PLA and bio-based polyethylene are derived from plant-based and renewable materials like corn, sugar cane and sugar beets. 

While bio-based packaging has several environmental benefits, not all bio-based materials are compostable or biodegradable. Some bio-based polyethylene packaging may only be partially made from renewable plant-based resources. However, the main challenge in the meat industry is coming up with packaging alternatives to match the durability of conventional plastic packaging, according to Zweep.

Knowing a material's end-of-life destination may help determine if its use will help reduce packaging waste. Zweep adds, "If bio-based materials are appropriately collected and either recycled or composted, they can help to reduce packaging waste and prevent such waste from ending up in landfills."

Crown Poly, a "eco-friendly bagging solutions" company, says their bags are compostable, which is another welcome solution to reducing plastic waste. You may recognize their bags from Trader Joe's produce aisles and checkout lines.

Bottom line

Shopping for meat requires a game plan—picking up your meat last on your way out of the grocery store and placing it away from your other grocery items likely reduces the risk of cross-contamination. Bagging your packaged meat in produce bags adds another layer of protection, but using plastic bags mindfully is key to minimizing their potentially detrimental environmental impacts.