That’s not currently allowed under U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, which Oregon has adopted, because of the potential for cross-contamination with pathogens or allergens.
But pressure to change state regulations has been mounting, state officials said, following China’s decision in January 2018 to stop allowing many items from the U.S. to be imported for recycling.
Since then, Oregonians have thrown away more than 16,000 tons of previously recyclable items, much of them single-use plastics like take-out containers.
“People are looking for ways to reduce the waste stream,” said Isaak Stapleton, Food Safety Program director for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Calls for a rule change intensified after the state cracked down on a program at First Alternative Co-op in Corvallis, which had for years been washing containers returned by customers and offering them for reuse. Its customers submitted a petition to state regulators earlier this year.
“When the state shut it down, I was one of the angrier customers,” said Charles Newlin, a Corvallis resident who led the petition drive. “I thought their ruling was pretty silly.”
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Oregon is starting with a look at rules for grocery stores, which ODA licenses and inspects.
Rule changes for restaurants likely will soon follow, said Dave Martin, Foodborne Illness Prevention Program coordinator at the Oregon Health Authority. OHA licenses and inspects restaurants, through county health departments.
“We get more and more calls from either consumers, or food establishments that have consumers that have asked to bring in their own containers,” Martin said. “It’s something that clearly is of interest to people.”
Not all retailers are on board, though.
At an ODA-led stakeholder meeting in August, grocery chain representatives worried about cross-contamination, and pointed out additional concerns.
Among them: The possibility of theft if the containers aren’t clear; consumers using containers not meant to be used multiple times; and problems getting an accurate tare weight, or the weight of the container before it’s filled.
“Grocery stores are open to the concept of reducing and reusing. However, food safety is a higher priority than reuse of containers,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association.
“Any program … will need to be a voluntary program considered on a retailer-by-retailer basis with the complete freedom to meet the needs of their customers and ensure their safety,” Gilliam said.
Oregon is joining other West Coast states in trying to address the problem of food-container waste.
“Really, it is the West Coast spearheading this,” said Daniel Blocker, director of facilities and risk management for the New Seasons Market grocery chain.
In July, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing clean, consumer-owned containers to be filled by either food service employees or consumers.
Assembly Bill 619 requires the food facility to isolate the container from the serving surface, or sanitize surfaces touched by consumers’ containers.
Retailers also must have a written policy for preventing cross-contamination.
And Washington also is working to revise its rules, said Susan Shelton,Food Safety Program public health adviser for the Washington State Department of Health.
“The vast majority of comments we received from our public stakeholders was to include and expand — particularly to allow consumers to bring int their own containers — the allowance for returnable reusables in our state,” she said.
The proposal isn’t final, she said. But the current draft would allow food facilities to opt-in to allowing consumer-provided containers for some low-risk foods.
The facilities would have to have a written policy for preventing cross-contamination, and consumers would be responsible for ensuring their containers are clean.
The next step in changing Oregon’s rules is for ODA to establish a rules advisory committee to help draft a proposal.
That can sometimes be a long process, and ODA doesn’t have a target timeline, Stapleton said.
“I think as long as whatever recommendations come up, if they protect public health and provide consumers with the ability to reduce waste, I think we have a win-win,” OHA’s Martin said. “I think we can get to that place.”
Published on eu.statesmanjournal.com