Published June 2010, reviewed January 2016.
The food safety/pallet issue re-emerged as headline news last week with the NBCLA story entitled Can Shipping Pallets Contaminate Your Food? Reporters went to a produce market and sampled water from a mud puddle where a pallet was resting, not surprisingly finding it to be contaminated.
This investigation was spurred by new sampling results from plastic pallet rental company iGPS. It said that “…one in every six wood pallets that transport food in Los Angeles, CA tested positive for one of three types of pathogens that spread easily, and endanger the nation’s food supply and the lives of American consumers.”
Either E. coli, Listeria, or Enterobacter cloacae, a bacterium that causes sickness and even death in people with lowered immune systems, were found on one in every six wood pallets tested in Los Angeles, according to the iGPS release. Tests were conducted in multiple locations in Los Angeles on both wood and plastic pallets used by supermarkets, restaurants and seafood retailers. In addition to the pathogens, the Los Angeles testing showed that 50 percent of all wood pallets sampled contained high bacteria counts in excess of 100,000 spores per gram, indicative of unsanitary conditions. Four of the wood pallet samples had bacteria counts in the millions of spores per gram range. Conversely, no pathogens and no high bacteria counts were found on any of the plastic pallets tested.
The iGPS tests have previously been criticized as targeting pallets used and stored in outdoor market locations and most likely to show contamination, rather than pallets in contained indoor supply chain environments more typical to leading grocery retailers. Regardless of the scientific rigor of its sampling techniques, however, iGPS has been hugely successful in bringing the pallet sanitation issue, and especially the wooden pallet sanitation issue, into the public eye. It has reached the extent that now the National Consumers League is now calling for pallets to be cleaned after use, according to the NBCLA report.
Where it all end up is hard to say. Major retailers already have food safety practices in place on cross-contamination, but an increased emphasis on cleaning pallets and eliminating soiled pallets from the supply chain will present new challenges and opportunities. Certainly iGPS hopes to ‘clean up’ in the monetary sense, but industry often has an amazing resilience to re-emerge competitively, as open tray pack corrugated paper boxes for fruit did to the challenge presented by shelf-ready reusable plastic containers (RPCs) not that many years ago. It just may be that increased concerns about pallet sanitation will make for a more aggressive culling of old pallets from the pool by suddenly more discerning participants, and as a result actually improve wood pallet pool quality, while improving overall supply chain efficiencies. Combine that with improved attention to handling procedures to ensure reusables are stored inside, and reusable pallet and container theft might be eradicated along with the bacteria. Nice side benefit.
Industrial Reporting Inc. President Dr. Ed Brindley last week summarized the pallet contamination issue as a “…made up crisis in search of a real problem.” The actual evidence of pallets resulting in people getting sick is just not there, other than the Tylenol case. Having said that, public interest has been raised. No one knows where all of this is going, but hopefully common sense prevails when it comes to pallets for the betterment of the supply chain and food safety in general.