Reusable Plastic Containers used to ship produce a weak link in cross-­border biosecurity, pose contamination risk, says corrugated group

Evidence continues to mount from a University of Guelph researcher indicating that the sanitization procedure for reusable plastic containers (RPCs) used to ship fresh produce in Canada is inadequate, according to a new release from the Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association. This announcement marks the latest round of an ongoing effort by the corrugated industry to cast into doubt the sanitation of RPCs. In this latest chapter, it also broadens the conversation to bring biosecurity into question.

Obviously looking to catch the attention of the public where it likely has failed with retail chains, it begrudgingly noted that some retailers still mandate that growers use RPCs. (You know, leading retailers which have exhaustive third party quality assurance programs in place throughout their supply chains because they can’t afford to have any awkward outcomes when it comes to food safety – those retailers.)

Full disclosure, this website supports reusable packaging because we believe in the right applications, it provides a best practice. However, everyone should stand for food safety, and we do. The question of expendable or reusable becomes secondary if public health is at risk. There is just this inconvenient truth, with apologies to Al Gore. There has been no evidence that transport packaging used for fresh produce has led to illness, or for that matter, biosecurity concerns.

I will have more to discuss in an opinion article to follow, but here is the rest of the release:

The study, finalized in March and released to the public in May, analyzes RPC sanitation at multiple sites across the country. It believes it identifies a weak link in cross-­‐border biosecurity and the possibility for contamination a significant concern.

“We have identified that with RPCs there is the potential of introducing pests or plant pathogens that could devastate crop production in Canada,” explains Dr. Keith Warriner, Professor of Food Safety, University of Guelph. “Given there has been little attention paid to sanitation over the years, RPCs can be considered a weak link in biosecurity.”

This is the third study conducted by Dr. Warriner that assesses the microbiological standard of RPCs used in different fresh produce packing stations. This year he tested in three provinces: Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Results show some improvement over previous years but still found issues such as high total aerobic and yeast and mold counts, and the presence of E. coli.

“We found that there is potential for the transfer of pathogens, such as Salmonella, between produce and crates,” he says. “Consequently the cleaning regime of RPCs needs to be revised along with standards based on risk assessment, devised.”

To date, the standards applied to define a sanitary crate have not been made public, according to the release. Given this, it is not possible to determine the microbial levels of concern. Dr. Warriner notes that an Integrated Pest Management approach might be appropriate. In this approach actual levels of microbes present on crates is not as critical as the types (e.g. pathogens) recovered.

A summary of this approach, Dr. Warriner’s work from 2013-­‐2016 and the latest results are linked here.

Within Canada, there has been cause for concern over the sanitation of RPCs

Dr. Warriner has been studying RPCs since commissioned to do so by the Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association (CCCA) in 2013. “Our customers, who historically used corrugated boxes to ship their produce, expressed concerns about being asked to use RPCs,” says Allen Kirkpatrick, CCCA Executive Director.

According to André Plante, General Manager, Quebec Produce Growers Association: “We continue to hear reports from growers that RPCs delivered to their farms sometimes arrive dirty. Furthermore, the crate system has been frustrating them. Shipping regulations have meant some growers are shipping 20 percent less produce per truckload. Packaging, regardless of whether it’s paper or plastic, should be the choice of the grower based on their individual circumstances.”

Source: Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association