Safeway supermarkets have stopped using red plastic grocery bags after the company discovered the new color scheme could make the bags easily mistaken for infectious hospital waste.

"It wasn't a very good idea and we won't use them any more," said Jim Roberts, spokesman for Safeway's Mid-Atlantic division.Red bags have gotten other retailers in trouble. In 1988, Washington-area Neiman-Marcus department stores stopped selling red designer trash bags after Maryland garbage collectors complained.

Safeway had decided to change bag colors because the basic white and tan bags were somewhat translucent and were perceived as being weak, Roberts said.

The bags were not fully packed by cashiers, resulting in the waste of many of the 185 million bags used annually in the 148-store division, he said recently.

The company then tried black, blue and gray colors but settled on red. Roberts said 4.8 million red bags were shipped to stores two weeks ago, and most of them are gone.

Alan Bergsten, chief of the Montgomery County, Md., Division of Solid Waste Management, said crews have seen many red bags stuffed with trash.

"The color is basically an annoyance because it slows us down," Bergsten said. "We keep our eyes peeled for red, and garbage collectors tend not to like picking up anything wrapped in that color."

Maryland Department of Environment spokesman Mike Sullivan said red bags were not illegal, but it was not "a wise thing" to make the bags red.

Roberts said the company has not decided what the new color will be.