On 5th November, England introduced the 5p tax on plastic carrier bags for large retailers, bringing England’s bag policy in line with Wales, which first introduced its bag charge in October 2011. The law now requires that all large shops across the country charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags.

The aim of the tax, in conjunction with other initiatives, is to cut the countries carbon footprint (by a projected 80%) and curb the amount of plastic sent to landfill. The proceeds of the bag tax, a predicted £730m, will be donated to environmental charities.

Naturally the mandatory tax resulted in debate across the country. Some appreciate the positive environmental impact it will have, and others are irritated that the wealthy companies are not the ones picking up the cost to reduce the cost to their customers.

Consumers and retailers alike have found themselves confused, not sure on which shops, chains and retailers are exempt from the carrier bag charge. On its official environment website , the government makes it clear that only retailers with over 250 employees are obligated to charge consumers for plastic bags. Smaller shops can choose whether to charge or not. Paper bags are exempt of the additional 5p charge.

However, a detail that seems to have been largely overlooked is the potential health hazards that reusing bags can bring.

Bag Bacteria

New research has found that bacteria from hands and food easily transfers onto the bag, and vice versa. This bacteria can survive and multiply on the bag for up to 48 hours. This can increase the spread of food poisoning bugs, such as E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Campylobacter.

Ready-to-eat foods are at highest risk of contamination as these are not washed, and are not cooked, to destroy the bacteria before human consumption.

So, if for example, a customer wants to carry their ready to eat food in a contaminated reusable plastic bag rather than pay for the 5p charge, some experts say it could lead to cross-contamination. The same risk can be applied to raw foods coming in contact with ready-to-eat foods when all packed into the same reusable bag.

Minimising the Risk

To help both consumers and retailers tackle the risks of contamination, there are steps you can take to reuse your plastic bags in a hygienic way:


  • Do not pack raw meats and vegetables with ready-to-eat foods (more tips for safe bag packing here).
  • Keep bags for transporting raw foods separate from other carrier bags. Remember not to use these bags for ready-to-eat food.
  • Wash your hands after handling plastic bags.
  • Store your plastic bags in a clean and dry area.

Where possible, do not pack ready-to-eat food in a previously used bag that has been used for raw food. Have different coloured bags for ready to eat foods.


  • Note that the additional charge only applies to businesses with over 250 employees.
  • For takeaways and other ready to eat which are uncovered, we advise you to provide new paper bags for customers, even if they have their own reused carrier bag. There is a risk they have previously carried contaminated food and cross-contamination could occur.
  • If assisting customers packing, place ready to eat and raw foods in separate bags
  • Try and wrap raw chicken separately if possible due to the high contamination levels of campylobacter

For more expert advice and information on regulations and correct food hygiene and health & safety practices, please contact Food Alert at enquiries@foodalert.com or 020 7244 1900

The information contained in this article has been created for marketing purposes and is not official guidance and should not be used as a substitute for official food safety, health & safety nor fire safety advice.

Food Alert take no responsibility if the information in the article is used to form part of a safety management system or used to form part of any legal or regulatory compliance for your business. For official guidance and to engage with Food Alert services please do call our team on 020 7244 1900 or email enquiries@foodalert.com




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