Pallet rivals clash as both call for FDA safety probe

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pallet

A simmering row between pallet industry competitors escalated yesterday when a plastic pallet producer called on US authorities to launch a food safety probe into its wood-based rivals.

Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) ignited the dispute after announcing it had sent a letter to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging it to carry out a “comprehensive investigation of wood pallets and the risks they may pose to the nation’s food supply”.

But the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) struck back saying it would welcome any review on pallet safety, while dismissing its plastic rival’s claims as “non-supportable”.

Wood pallet concerns raised

iGPS CEO and chairman Bob Moore said: “Wood pallets may present a serious risk to America’s food supply. 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. 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.”

In his letter to FDA Director Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Michael R. Taylor, Senior Advisor to the Commissioner, Moore said “engineered wood” ​components in timber pallets contained formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. He added that the chemical “may come into contact with food under a variety of scenarios when stored and shipped on wooden pallets”​ and poses a health risk if “released into the air when it off-gases from pallets in storage and transportation compartments”.

The Florida-based firm further claimed that wooden pallets were susceptible to insect infestation and required heat treatment or fumigation using a toxic chemical prior to cross-border transportation.

“The use of wood pallets to carry our food supply is increasingly difficult to justify, especially when it is so vulnerable to contamination,”​ said 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.”

NWPCA support for pallet investigation

But leading wooden pallet industry body NWPCA was swift to respond to the charges saying it would be pleased to contribute to any FDA investigation. The body vowed to submit a number of studies already conducted by the European food industry to support the safety of timber pallets. It also raised its own safety concerns about plastic pallets.

NWPCA President Bruce Scholnick said: “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.”

The association quoted a study by the German Institute of Technology which it said found “the overall bacterial count on commercial wooden pallets made from different types of wood was on average 15 per cent lower than on plastic pallets”.​ Research from the Nordic food industry came to the same conclusions, while a Swiss study said wood was as easy to clean as plastic, said the NWCA.

Deca bans

Scholnick went on the offensive by echoing calls made by the Environmental Working Group for the FDA to conduct safety tests for deca-bromine chemical fire retardant in plastic pallets, including those employed by iGPS.

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,” ​he said. “The FDA needs to test the older plastic pallets to see how much deca dust is getting onto our food.”

The NWCPA said that the US states of Maine, Washington and Oregon had passed laws banning the use of Deca in household goods.

Avowing the safety of its own products, the body quoted a California Air Pollution Board (CARB) review of wood packaging that concluded “these products are not subject to any of the requirements of the airborne toxic control measure.”

Call for data

“Plastic pallet companies are in a difficult position​,” said Scholnick. “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.”

He added there were a number of studies proving the safety of wood pallets on a range of criteria including sanitation and fire reaction. The NWCA chief challenged iGPS to “show the world the data” - to demonstrate the safety and recyclability of its plastic pallets.

Related topics Processing & packaging

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