Pallet Debate Still on Fire; Risk to Food Supply Now in Dispute

Aug. 12, 2009
Suppliers of plastic and wood pallets are at it again, each side claiming the other is dangerous.

MHM was first to report the initial debate sparked by the release of a draft code bulletin from the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

Soon after, allegations among wood and plastic pallet makers and suppliers spread furiously, focusing first on each platform’s fire risk and then escalating to claims of toxicity.

As the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749) makes its way to the Senate, the pallet debate is picking up steam once again.

On Aug. 11, iGPS Co. called on the U.S. FDA to “launch a comprehensive investigation of wood pallets and the risks they may pose to the nation’s food supply.”

Bob Moore, chairman and CEO of iGPS, drafted a letter to Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Michael R. Taylor, senior advisor to the commissioner.

“Wood pallets may present a serious risk to America’s food supply,” says Bob Moore, chairman and CEO of iGPS. “The over 1 billion wood pallets in circulation in the U.S. are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and carry other undesirable substances that can cross-contaminate food. Wood is inherently porous and can easily absorb bacteria and fluids, creating a risk for food products where Listeria, E. coli and salmonella are a concern.”

Moore goes on to say wood pallets made with “engineered wood components” contain urea formaldehyde, which he says is a “known carcinogen, which may come into contact with food under a variety of scenarios when it is stored and shipped on wooden pallets.”

In addition, he claims “wood pallets are susceptible to insect infestation and require heat treatment or fumigation before they can be moved cross-border.” Fumigation is done with methyl bromide, he says, adding that the substance is “a highly toxic, ozone-depleting chemical.” Moore also points out a potential risk of rusty nails penetrating food packaging.

“The use of wood pallets to carry our food supply is increasingly difficult to justify, especially when it is so vulnerable to contamination,” says Moore. “Wood pallets are so unhygienic that the FDA has explicitly recommended that they not be used in connection with food preparation–but more analysis is needed.

“We call upon the FDA to launch a full investigation into the use of wood pallets in connection with the storage and shipment of our country’s food,” he concludes. “The health and safety of the American public dictates nothing less.”

The following day, on Aug. 12, the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) released a statement in support of the FDA testing pallets for food safety.

“To aid this process, NWPCA is submitting several studies already conducted by the European food industry to meet the European Commission Hygiene Directive introduced in 2000,” the statement reads.

"The goal of the European Commission directive was to make a single hygiene policy effective from the farm to the table," says NWPCA President Bruce Scholnick. "The European food industry conducted a number of field and laboratory tests on wood and plastic pallets and found wood to be equal to, and in some cases superior to, plastic. Apparently, plastic is made up of minuscule honeycomb patterns that hold onto bacteria in a way that wood does not."

NWPCA also makes note of field tests conducted by the German Institute for Food Technology that compared wood and plastic pallets used in the meat, dairy, vegetable and bakery sectors. The institute found, NWPCA reports, "the overall bacterial count on commercial wooden pallets made from different types of wood was on average 15% lower than on plastic pallets."

The association also references a Nordic food industry study that conducted field tests on the survival of bacteria in the meat industry. That study was compared against those in German laboratory tests, according to NWCPA, which adds, “the overall conclusions were the same—bacteria didn't survive within the wood.”

"We are sharing these food industry studies with the appropriate FDA administrators and are encouraging them to replicate them," Scholnick says.

In addition to defending wood pallets, the NWCPA leader also is asking the FDA to investigate plastic pallets. "We are also asking that they [the FDA] include a safety test for deca-bromine chemical fire retardant, which is infused in the iGPS plastic pallets. In fact, according to the company's own lifecycle analysis, there are 3.4 pounds of deca in each iGPS pallet."

In April, the NWCPA posted an alert marked with a skull and crossbones on its Web site calling plastic pallets a “toxic platform.”

In his Aug. 12 statement, Scholnick continues: "After pallets are roughed up in the normal wear and tear of the material handling and warehouse system, those chemicals are bound to leach into the products they carry. The FDA needs to test the older plastic pallets to see how much deca dust is getting onto our food."

Scholnick quotes Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy and communications at the Environmental Working Group. Scholnick says Wiles wrote in a letter to the FDA that, "Deca is a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen that persists in the environment and accumulates in human tissue."

Scholnick adds that Wiles followed up with a letter to U.S. grocery stores and supermarkets saying, "We are writing to ask that you determine whether or not you or your suppliers are currently using plastic pallets, and if so, we urge you to immediately stop the use of these pallets by you or your suppliers until proper FDA approvals are received."

According to Scholnick, Maine, Washington and, most recently, Oregon, have passed legislation banning the use of Deca for household goods.

“As for iGPS' request that FDA look at engineered wood, the agency might save itself time by examining California's policy, which is one of the most stringent in the world,” the statement from NWCPA continues. “At the request of NWPCA, the California Air Resources Board reviewed wood packaging industry practices and came to the conclusion that these products are not subject to any of the requirements of the airborne toxic control measure."

"Plastic pallet companies are in a difficult position," Scholnick adds. "Without Deca, their products represent an extreme fire hazard; with it, they pose other risks. iGPS is in a difficult position, and they are responding by tossing around non-supportable claims and accusations.”

Visit the parties on each side of the issue: NWCPA and iGPS

MHM will continue to provide updates as they occur.