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 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."
On a recent afternoon, stroller-pushing moms and curious shoppers glided through the shop, eyeing baskets of organic produce, containers of fair-trade coffee, gravity bins of organic grains, urns of extra-virgin olive oil and tanks of eco-friendly household cleaners. Next to the bulk bins, a dozen empty jars were for purchase (for $1.25 to $1.50) by those who didn't bring containers. Yucan also offers biodegradable plastic bags that most customers used on this visit, though many vowed to come back with jars next time in order to get a 25-cent discount.
Although several shoppers have purchased reusable jars, especially to take home pints of organic olive oil, Yucan said fewer have brought them back. She attributes that to the newness of her shop and the fact much of her early business has come from Division Street foot traffic rather than organized, jar-toting grocery shoppers.
"I love bulk shopping and usually bring my own containers because it's much more economical," said Teale Richards, of Lakeview, who did not have containers with her on a recent visit to Real Naked Foods. "A lot of people think eating healthy, vegan or vegetarian is more expensive, but if you do it this way, it's not."
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."
Catherine Conway, who opened Unpackaged in 2006, said she also had wondered about contamination issues but has headed them off with cleanliness and explicit ground rules.
"We are very clear that customers should wash their own containers and it is their responsibility; this info is all over the website and shop," she wrote in an email. "They use scoops in the shop to dispense and we have excellent hygiene practices in the shop," including regular washing of the scoops.
As her operation grows, she said, she hopes to create "clever product design" for dispensers that makes the contamination issue almost moot.
"When I started I tried to get advice from legal people, but no one could really tell me what we should do, so I comply with all food hygiene rules and have the systems that I as a customer would want," she wrote. "I decided to get on with it and see what happened. ... However I do concede we have a less litigious culture in the UK than the U.S."
Indeed, liability issues give some Chicago businesses pause when clients ask to reuse containers. At Spice House in Old Town and Evanston, managers say customers often arrive with jars, asking for refills.
"We tell them we can't, because it would be a health code violation," said Spice House assistant manager Tracy Turoczy. "So instead, we sell a refill bag that they can empty into their jars. It's a licensing issue, from what I understand, and it would be a liability."
But is it a liability risk for the business?
Bill Marler, one of the nation's leading attorneys for food-borne illness cases, said he's not so sure. During his 20 years in the field, Marler said, he has never heard of a lawsuit involving someone who became ill after dispensing food into their own container, "and I have heard a lot of cases."
Although he doesn't think the practice presents a big risk to the store selling the product or to the consumer, Marler said he thinks "it is wise for people to wash their containers thoroughly before they put food in them."
Ideally, a business would have control of all containers, he said, "but the chances of having any liability are really small, and the liability they would have if multiple people got sick from that food is the same as they would have had selling it in their own containers."
Couldn't someone sue the health department for not enforcing a strict code?
"Health departments always think they are going to get sued," Marler said, "but they're almost never sued by victims. The people who sue them are the businesses they shut down."
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."
At Real Naked Foods, customer Richards is enthusiastic about BYOC but said she often faces resistance.
"When I bring my own steel container for leftovers at restaurants, the waiters are like, 'Are you sure? I've got one right here,' and I feel kind of weird," Richards said. "I even bring my own glass to juice bars, and they say 'We're not really supposed to do this.' Hopefully, if more people start asking, it won't seem so weird and they will find a way to make it work in this city."
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