Chicago may put a lid on latest eco-trend
Chicago's Department of Public Health sees the "bring your own container" trend as a potential liability if someone gets sick from cross-contamination.
CHICAGO — Just as Chicago consumers get the hang of reusable grocery bags, a new movement has sprouted to make local grocery shopping even greener: reusable containers.
Called BYOC — bring your own container — by its fans, the process involves carrying glass jars and bottles, plastic tubs, and even cloth bags to the market to fill with bulk foods. To eco-conscious consumers, who can already shop this way elsewhere in the U.S., the practice reduces waste, avoids advertising, reuses resources, facilitates the purchase of whole foods and saves money.
But to Chicago's Department of Public Health, the practice also can mean danger and potential liability if someone gets sick from cross-contamination.
"We don't ... allow folks to bring in their own containers to restaurants, delis or any other place, for that matter," said Cort Lohff, medical director for environmental health at the Chicago Department of Public Health. "We are worried about people bringing in containers that are not cleaned very well and then contaminating any surface that they might touch with that."
Lohff said his objection is based on a section of the city's municipal code that states: "All food shall be protected from contamination ... and so shall all food equipment," including containers.
Lauren Yucan, who opened Real Naked Foods in Chicago's Wicker Park this spring with BYOC as its foundation, said she is aware of the city's stance but has talked with the local inspector and is hoping the cleanliness of her store and supportive customers will win over the city.
"People in the neighborhood have been overwhelmingly receptive to the concept of BYOC," said Yucan, who was inspired by a popular BYOC store in London called Unpackaged. "(Before I started), a lot of people said, 'Oh, what about contamination?' But I told them they should be more worried about the chemicals, additives, preservatives and carcinogens in their foods than someone possibly sneezing near the dry oats. I think that contamination (from bulk food dispensers) is the least of your concerns when you are talking about healthful foods."
The problem with bringing containers to the store, according to Health Department spokesman Jose Munoz, is the threat of contamination.
"This is a situation where there is no store personnel who has any control over the situation; all the actions are taken by the consumer," Munoz wrote in an email. "The consumer fills his/her own jar with the dry oats; as the consumer is taking the action, absent any oversight or involvement by store personnel, there is potential for the consumer's jar to contaminate the oats in the container."
Although Whole Foods grocery stores in New York; Los Angeles; Boulder, Colo.; Austin, Texas; Louisville, Ky.; San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; and Cleveland, to name a few, allow customers to bring in containers, the Whole Foods stores in Chicago do not.
Chicago-based Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Klotz cites safety and logistical issues, noting that "a handful of our stores may have done this in the past, but overall, we unfortunately can't honor it."
At San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery, which allows customers to tote away not only dry goods but ravioli, tofu, pickles and olive oil, staff say they have never seen a container-related health problem.
"We have been doing it for as long as I have been here, and that's 11 years," said Jennifer Stocker, a member of Rainbow's public relations committee. "It's a pretty simple system. We don't check people's containers when they come in to make sure they are clean. That would be impossible. It's just on the honor system, and when you go through the cash register, you say if it's a used container."
Chicago is not the only municipality to frown on BYOC. Nancy Depippo, who co-owns Poppy's Market and Cafe in Brevard, N.C., said her local health department nixed the practice at her store.
"People would like to bring reused deli containers for us to refill, but the health department won't allow it," she said. "They wash and bring back our containers and they say fill it up with, say, chicken salad, but we can't. Rules change county to county, and I guess you play with the cards you are dealt wherever you live."
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