Containing food safety with the right containers: Part 2

Reduce foodborne illness by not reusing cardboard and egg cartons to store food.

Various cardboard egg cartons.
Photo: MSU Extension/Mary Morris Donaldson.

This is part of a series detailing how containers can affect food safety. Read part one, about glass containers, hereRead part three, about plastic containers, here.

The phrase "reduce, reuse and recycle" can be a great way to save money and to be more sustainable, but it may not be a great way to store food. Storing food in the wrong container can contaminate food and cause a foodborne illness. Michigan State University Extension recommends that only food-grade containers are used to store food. 

Cardboard boxes that have contained raw food may absorb moisture, allowing bacteria to grow, and possibly contaminate other food. Cardboard cannot be cleaned and sanitized. Waxed corrugated fiberboard, used to ship produce, is able to resist moisture, but not completely, which potentially allows microorganisms to grow. Additionally, the seams of the box are great hiding spots for bacteria and molds, and fungi.

If the box is relatively undamaged and visually clean (remember, cleaning is different from sanitizing, cleaning removes dirt and debris, sanitizing reduces pathogens to safe levels) it may be reused for storing food that has a smooth and firm rind, such as a watermelon. However, a cantaloupe, for example, is not smooth and would not be appropriate for storing in a reused cardboard box. Any boxes that have held raw meat, poultry, or fish should not be reused for anything. In the state of Michigan, it is against the law for growers and retailers to reuse a box that held say, carrots, to be used to store or display apples. This is to minimize cross-contamination from one food to another and is also a great tip for consumers on how to handle used cardboard boxes for storage.

Since it can be a bumpy ride from the hen house to grocery store shelves, foam or cardboard egg cartons have been designed to protect fragile, raw shell eggs. While traveling in these cartons, eggs are considered a raw food. Reusing egg cartons, even if the cartons are washed can be a source of cross-contamination. The USDA considers egg cartons as a one-time-use packaging.

Ready-to-eat food, like mini muffins, that are stored in egg cartons can become contaminated with salmonella. Reusing egg cartons as a creative way for storing food or used for craft projects can potentially cause foodborne illness. Michigan State University Extension recommends that hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds after handling egg cartons.

MSU Extension also recommends using food-safe containers to reduce the chances of foodborne illness. For more information on keeping food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

Did you find this article useful?