Pallets’ Role in Butter Contamination Debated

Another war of words has erupted over the role of pallets in contaminating the food chain. The combatants are the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) and Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), a pallet rental service that uses plastic pallets. The war is being waged over NWPCA’s making the connection between iGPS’s pallets and a recent finding of high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants in butter samples purchased from five grocery stores in the city of Dallas. The finding was reported in a study conducted by the University of Texas (UT) School of Public Health. Investigators suggested the incident represents the worst documented case of PBDE contamination in food ever reported in the U.S.

A press release recently put out by NWPCA noted that according to an iGPS life cycle analysis, each of its plastic pallets contain 3.4 lbs of decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), one of several chemicals classified as PBDEs. The NWPCA release notes that the UT researchers speculated on possible causes of contamination such as the butter's paper wrapper, but NWPCA went a step further:

“Given the high levels of PBDE used in the plastic pallets, they should be examined as the root source of transfer to the food,” the release states.

It further quotes Bruce Scholnick, president and CEO of the NWPCA, as offering an explanation for how such contamination can occur:

“Pallets are treated roughly in warehouse and material handling conditions,” he said. “They are scraped across floors, gouged by forklifts and dropped from the back of trucks onto loading docks. Plastic pallets end up with fine layers of dust, likely containing decaBDE. Those pallets are then piled with produce, dairy and manufactured food products. … I'm not saying that plastic pallets are the source of the chemical contaminants in the butter, but I am encouraging further testing of food that is transported on these pallets.”

iGPS Chairman and CEO Bob Moore drafted a letter to his company’s customers condemning the NWPCA press release as dishonest and reckless.

“Had the leadership of the NWPCA been interested in the truth,” he wrote, “rather than irresponsible accusations, it could easily have determined that the manufacturer of the butter in question is not a customer of iGPS and that the products were shipped on wood pallets, not pallets from iGPS. Not only were iGPS pallets uninvolved with the shipment of this product, but the safety of our pallet has also been repeatedly confirmed by independent tests. In short, no product contamination has ever been linked to our pallet.”

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