There aren't many things more tenacious than an Asian longhorned beetle—except for the little piece of boilerplate copy newspaper writers have latched onto to explain how these beetles got into southern Ohio and are now feasting on suburban trees. This little line of type has taken on a life of its own since it started appearing in stories 12 years ago and carried some truth. Most recently it appeared in a story that ran in the Columbus Dispatch. Here it is:
“The beetles hitch rides to the U.S. inside wooden pallets and crates shipped from Asia.”
Bruce Scholnick hates this undying snippet of text almost as much as he hates the beetles chomping on Ohio trees. He's president and CEO of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA). He's been using ISPM 15 to try to kill that little piece of copy, but it still manages to crawl into stories that cover beetle infestations.
ISPM 15 (International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures no. 15) is an international regulation that requires all wood packaging to be heat treated to 56 degrees centigrade at its core for a minimum duration of 30 minutes. Or it must be fumigated for 24 hours. Scholnick says that in the five years since ISPM 15 was adopted by more than 140 nations, it has proven to be 99.9% effective in keeping beetles from hitching rides in pallets. That's a detail many newspaper reporters tend to miss, Scholnick told me.
“When somebody writes an article, because everybody is clamouring for news stories and there isn't a lot of fresh blood around, they start copying and before you know it the message sent gets distorted, like in the game of telephone.”
What he hates more than the poor reputation the pallet industry gets from this is the effect on that industry's business. Many small pallet companies have been hurt by USDA-imposed quarantines of their products.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has published a risk assessment saying there is no demonstrative evidence that the movement of wood pallets is contributing to the further introduction of non-native invasive species in areas where they currently don't already exist. However, the U.S. Dept. Of Agriculture (USDA) continues to impose quarantine areas on a city, county or state basis when infestations are reported.
“Our concern is how can you make a statement like there is no evidence we are contributing to the infestation and on the other hand implement these quarantine areas?,” Scholnick asks. “We are not getting a lot of satisfaction out of USDA on this issue.”
He is trying to get the USDA to drop the quarantines on wood packaging in 16 states. He says not only has APHIS stated there is no evidence linking wood packaging to the spread of the pests, but it has determined that firewood and nursery stock are the more likely culprits.
Nevertheless, companies that produce wooden pallets and containers are feeling the pain of beetle infestation, even if their products haven't been proved to be housing them.
“These quarantines create an unlevel playing field,” Scholnick says. “When you have a quarantine in a county in southern Ohio and across the border there is none in Tennessee, the guy in Tennessee has a distinct advantage and that's unfair.”
But who said life is fair?
Ultimately, beyond the power of ISPM 15 to keep hungry bugs out of our trees, the responsibility for keeping them out of supply chains must be shared by pallet suppliers and pallet users. On the shipper side, avoid cheap pallets from questionable sources. Six years ago, this magazine's resident expert on pallet pests, Clyde Witt, did a great job explaining why pallets are such an easy target for regulators:
“Pallets, crates and tiedowns are often constructed from raw wood cut shortly before it is used,” Clyde wrote back in 2006. “This frequently includes bark on some surfaces. If you've ever watched a woodpecker searching for a meal, the bark is where it goes for insects. Another reason regulations have targeted transport packaging material is that such products are often constructed from lower grades of wood that has suffered insect damage.”
So the problem may no longer be critters from Asia. It may be the descendants of those critters who now migrate from state to state and tree to tree. And, unfortunately, supply chain to supply chain if logistics professionals aren't vigilant.