FDA asked to review safety of wood pallets
One of the largest plastic pallet companies on Tuesday asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to examine the potential risks that wood pallets pose to food safety.
'The over one 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,' said Bob Moore, chairman and chief executive officer of Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), based in Orlando, Fla. 'Wood is inherently porous and can easily absorb bacteria and fluids, creating a risk for good products where Listeria, E. coli and salmonella are a concern.'
In a letter to the FDA, Moore warned about the release of urea formaldehyde, a carcinogen, from 'engineered wood' used to make pallets. 'Formaldehyde is also released into the air when it off-gases from pallets in storage and transportation compartments, posing a risk to the health of workers and consumers,' he added.
Moore said wood pallets are susceptible to insect infestation and require heat treatment or fumigation before they can move cross-border. Fumigants, such as methyl bromide, have been labeled by scientists and environmentalists as harmful to the earth's protective ozone layer. He also noted that wood pallet nails can penetrate food packaging.
The Alexandria, Va.-based National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, whose more than 700 members represent 40 percent of the wood packaging industry, immediately responded to iGPS's letter to the FDA and submitted to the agency a number of previously conducted studies on the safety of wood pallets in the food products trade.
In specific, NWPCA highlighted the European Commission's Hygiene Directive of 2000. '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,' said Bruce Scholnick, the association's president. 'Apparently plastic is made up of minuscule honeycomb patterns that hold onto bacteria in a way that wood does not.'
The NWPCA cited a study by the German Institute for Food Technology, which conducted field tests comparing wood and plastic pallets used in meat, dairy, vegetable and bakery sectors. The institute found 'the overall bacterial count on commercial wood pallets made from different types of wood was an average 15 percent lower than on plastic pallets.'
According to the association, a Nordic food industry laboratory test on cleaning wood and plastic pallets after contamination with normal detergent without antibacterial additives concluded that 'bacterial survival is lowest on wood.' A Swiss test similarly found that 'wood is just as easy to clean and is an acceptable hygienic material.'
The NWCPA further pointed up the health and environmental concerns posed by the use of chemical fire retardant deca-bromine in the manufacture of plastic pallets. The association said iGPS uses 3.4 pounds of deca-bromine per pallet.
'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,' Scholnick said. 'The FDA needs to test the older plastic pallets to see how much deca dust is getting onto our food.'
Scholnick reminded the FDA that on April 29 its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said deca-bromine is 'not authorized' as a component of plastic pallets used in hydro-cooling produce.
'Plastic pallet companies are in a difficult position,' Scholnick said. 'Without deca their plastic 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.'
iGPS, founded by former senior managers of large wood pallet manufacturer CHEP, emerged on the market in March 2006. Numerous food shippers have since embraced the iGPS plastic pallet, including PepsiCo., Borders Melon Co., Imperial Sugar, Martori Farms, Okray Family Farms, Kraft, SK Foods, Pilgrims Pride, Ocean Spray, General Mills, and Cott Corp. By the end of 2008, iGPS estimated that it expanded its U.S. pool to more than 5 million pallets, and expects that number to reach beyond 16 million pallets by 2011. ' Chris Gillis