Can I Use My Own Containers for Raw Butcher Meat and Take-Out Food?
Take-out orders usually generate a lot of throwaway styrofoam and plastic. The plastic utensils restaurants provide are unrecyclable (check out this article from Earth 911 to find out why), and the food is usually taken home in a plastic bag. Even paper fast food packaging is not recyclable, as the bowls and Chinese take out boxes are coated in a thin layer of plastic to prevent food from seeping through. Proponents of plastic-free, zero waste lifestyles often suggest bringing your own containers to the restaurant for take-out food, and bringing your own reusable cups instead of using disposable cups. Some even suggest using containers from home to take home raw meat from the butcher. But what do federal and state regulators of the retail food industry have to say about these practices? Can food businesses refuse to allow you to use your own containers? Here's what we found out.
Take-Out Food and Take-Out Beverages
The Michigan Modified Food Code, 3-304.1 states: "A take-out food container returned to a food establishment may NOT be refilled at a food establishment with a potentially hazardous food (time/temperature control for safety food). (B) Except as specified in (C), a take-out food container refilled with food that is NOT potentially hazardous food (time/temperature control for safety food) shall be cleaned as specified under 4-603.17(B).
Potentially hazardous foods, or Time and Temperature for Control (TTC) foods, are those foods that are susceptible to bacteria growth if left in the ‘Danger Zone’, which is 41 to to 135 degrees fahrenheit, a temperature range in which pathogens grow well.
Pretty much everything you'd be ordering for take out is a time/temp sensitive food (cut salad greens and cut vegetables are TTS foods, too), so NO, you probably cannot bring your own containers from home for takeout food.
Reusable Beverage Cups from Home
The Michigan Modified Food Code, 3-304.1 also states: (C) Personal take-out beverage containers, such as thermally insulated bottles, nonspill coffee cups, and promotional beverage glasses, may be refilled by employees or the consumer IF (and only if) refilling is a contamination-free process as specified under ¶¶ 4-204.13(A), (B), and (D). You can't use your cup from home unless filling it is a 'contamination-free process' as defined by the Food Code. So, what's a 'contamination-free' process? The Michigan Modified Food Code 4-204.13 states:
(A) The delivery tube, chute, orifice, and splash surfaces directly above the container receiving the beverage (or food) shall be designed in a manner, such as with barriers, baffles, or drip aprons, so that drips from condensation and splash are diverted from the opening of the container receiving the food or beverage;
(B) The delivery tube, chute, and orifice shall be protected from manual contact such as by being recessed; and
(D) The dispensing equipment actuating lever or mechanism and filling device of consumer self-service beverage dispensing equipment shall be designed to prevent contact with the lip contact surface of glasses or cups that are refilled.
So, can you ask your barista to use your mug from home when making that "quad long shot grande half caff salted caramel mocha latte"? Maybe. But maybe not. In a nutshell, you can't use your reusable mug or cup if you're ordering a beverage whose preparation doesn't meet the 'contamination-free' standard.
California passed Bill 619 in 2019 that stipulates restaurants can’t put consumers’ reusable containers down on the serving surface, and they must sanitize the surface each time after filling a reusable container. Furthermore, restaurants must prepare, maintain, and adhere to written procedures to prevent cross-contamination, and make the written procedures available to the enforcement agency. Sounds like a bit of a pain; I can see restaurants refusing to allow reusable containers from home so as not to have to deal with the no touching the surface/sanitization requirements after EACH reusable cup is filled.
Taking Home Raw Meat in a Reusable Container
Per the requirements of Chapter 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 317 and Section 381 subpart N, all meat and poultry products must have labels with up to 8 required features, including
Product Name Inspection Legend with Establishment Number Plant Address (or company address) Ingredients Statement Net Weight Handling Statement (i.e. “keep refrigerated”) Nutritional Facts Safe Handling Instructions (mandatory for raw meat)
Furthermore, your butcher is REQUIRED BY LAW to use FDA-approved packaging materials for raw meat. Packaging materials entering a meat or poultry plant must be accompanied or covered by a guaranty or statement of assurance from the packaging supplier. The guaranty must state that the material complies with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). It must also state the brand name, supplier, and conditions for use, including temperature and other limits. Containers from home do not meet these requirements and are not FDA-approved packaging materials. Yes, you HAVE to have the sticker with all that information listed above on it, and they HAVE to wrap the meat in FDA-approved packaging like butcher paper, plastic film & styrofoam, etc.
There's a supermarket chain in Australia allowing customers to use pre-purchased, pre-approved containers for a range of products including bulk foods, salads, cheeses, deli meats, spices, olives and antipasti. But NOT raw meat. Customers buy the containers at a reduced price and bring them back to the store where they are traded for another product pre-washed through commercial cleaners.