Pallet Wars: Wood vs. Plastic for Food Safety

Photo: Pallet Wars: Wood vs. Plastic for Food Safety: Industry Leaders Are Fighting Over Rarely Discussed, But Influential Platforms

They've carried your food, they've carried your clothes, your medicine, and probably part of your house.

But unless you work with those industrial, stackable platforms, it's unlikely that you've heard about pallets, or the ongoing pallet wars.

An estimated 1.2 billion pallets are in use in the United States alone -- in warehouses, in trucks, on the bottom of forklifts -- and for 60 years since the pallet's formal debut, safety issues for this ubiquitous piece of equipment have been minimal.

But in the last few months, pallet industry leaders have been caught up in brewing war over consumer safety that could easily rival the plastic versus wood cutting board battle of the 1990s.

On one side is the new competitor that distributes plastic pallets. On the other are larger, older companies and associations that deal with wooden pallets, such as the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.

Both are pointing to studies, or potential hazards caused by either plastic or wood. Given the Tylenol recall this December, which affected 60 million bottles, it's easy to see how a few contaminated pallets could affect many.

E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella

Plastic pallet distributer intelligent Global Pooling Systems, or iGPS, threw a recent punch this January when the company released results of a multi-city survey that found E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella growing on wooden pallets.

"In New Orleans Louisiana, 43 percent of the pallets came back positive with E. coli, salmonella and listeria," said Bob Moore, CEO and chairman of iGPS.

Plastic Pallet Industry Testing Wood for Germs

The samples from 30 pallets in New Orleans was paid for by iGPS and sent to independent labs. Other cities in the iGPS-sponsored survey included Maine, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Moore is arguing that the same contamination that his company found on wooden pallets in fish markets in New Orleans is less likely to show up on his plastic pallets.

"We have found some [contaminated] pallets, because we test them on our own. But nothing like you find on wood pallets because it's non-organic, non-porous," said Moore, who argued that the upcoming GPS tracking devices on his pallets would let him monitor which pallets are at risk.

Tracking Pallets Could Be a Way to Track Outbreaks

"I know what a pallet had on it yesterday. If I know that it had dry grocery on it, then I know there's no risk for cross contamination," Moore said.

But the president of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association argues the iGPS testing doesn't say much about the wooden pallets versus plastic pallets debate, since the company didn't include samples from plastic pallets in its investigation.

"The question is, are these random pallets or are they specifically targeted pallets?" said Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.

"I could go out and find a [any] pallet that's been sitting outside for 6 months or a year that has waste on it, animal waste and I could send it to a lab," he said.

Scholnick said the inquiry into food-borne illnesses on wooden pallets was spurred by industry attention to the possibility that there are environmental hazards in a flame retardant used in the plastic pallets.

Chemical Hazards?

"It frankly started with their flame retardants," Scholnick said of iGPS.

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