Consumer Group Takes on Wood Pallets

May 27, 2010
The National Consumers League (NCL) is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set sanitary and safety standards for “unregulated but crucial” pallets.

The nonprofit organization says its mission is “to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.”

In late April, the organization tested a total of 140 pallets—70 wood and 70 plastic—used to transport food in greater Houston and Miami to determine if they contain pathogens. NCL shipped the samples overnight to an unnamed “independent microbiology lab” that provides testing services for commercial, industrial, regulatory and law-enforcement clients.

NCL reports that 10% of the wood pallets tested positive for E. coli (though it was not the most dangerous strain: E. coli O157:H7), and 2.9% of the wood pallets tested positive for Listeria. Half of those (1.4% total) contained Listeria monocytogenes, a strain that causes approximately 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths in the United States every year and is linked to a 20% to 30% rate of clinical infections resulting in death, according to NCL. In addition, NCL says it found high aerobic plate counts on approximately one-third of the wood pallets it tested.

Of the 70 plastic pallets tested, 1.4% came back positive for E. coli, reports NCL. None of the other plastic pallets tested positive for pathogens, the organization notes, although it found high aerobic plate counts on one-fifth of the plastic pallets tested.

The consumer group sent its test results to the FDA, along with a call for the government agency to conduct its own testing and set standards for the proper cleaning and storage of pallets.

“We believe it is essential to ensure that pathogens are not introduced at any step along the food transport system, from farm to fork,” says Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director. “Our testing of pallets has shown that these relatively unregulated but crucial parts of the food transportation system can and do harbor dangerous pathogens that could potentially contaminate the food supply.”

“Looking at the safety of pallets is crucial,” wrote Greenberg in her letter to the FDA. “Even if farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers were all to follow food safety plans and practices to the letter, the introduction of dangerous pathogens into the food supply during transport could negate these efforts…With approximately two billion pallets currently in circulation in the United States, the presence of dangerous pathogens on even a small percentage of those pallets presents a potential threat to the safety of the food supply.”

“If a pallet is absorptive–i.e., has the capacity to absorb water and harbor bacteria–or difficult or impossible to fully clean, it could contaminate food products like fresh produce or meat,” adds NCL in a statement released to the media. “A pallet that carries raw seafood on ice to a given destination, then heads of lettuce or apples to the next, could potentially contaminate that produce and lead to foodborne illness.

“Furthermore, regardless of the materials from which it is made, any pallet that is not properly cleaned between trips increases the likelihood of cross-contamination,” the group continues. “Storing a pallet outside, in unsanitary areas, in places accessible to vermin, or near potential contaminants increases the chances that the pallet could harbor dangerous pathogens. In conducting our testing, we observed that wood pallets–which we found to have a higher incidence of pathogens–are more often stored outside and exposed to weather, rodents, bird droppings and insects. Among additional considerations is the use of damaged wood pallets; splinters or sharp points can damage the packaging of products, creating an entryway for pathogens from which sealed products would otherwise be protected.”

NCL also makes note of the recent McNeil Consumer Healthcare drug recalls, which were linked to 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), a chemical that “can result from the breakdown of a chemical that is sometimes applied to wood that is used to build wood pallets that transport and store product packaging materials,” according to McNeil’s January press release.

NCL also references a report prepared by Eastern Research Group Inc. for the FDA that highlights the use of “good quality pallets.”

Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA), could not be reached immediately for comment, although NWPCA has refuted the claims made by McNeil about the cause of the recalls.