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Consumer Group Pallet Pathogen Tests Prompt Urging of FDA Regulation

Departments - Industry News, General Safety

NCL test results show up to 10 percent of wood pallets test positive for pathogens.

| June 21, 2010

Washington, DC – With its test results showing up to 10 percent of wood pallets testing positive for pathogens, the National Consumers League (NCL) is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set minimum sanitary and safety standards for the “unregulated but crucial” pallets that are used to transport food throughout the United States.

The move by NCL follows exploratory tests of pallets for foodborne pathogens, including E. coli and Listeria. Findings showed 10 percent of the 70 wood pallets tested had E. coli present (though not the most virulent strain, E. coli O157:H7). In addition to the presence of E. coli, 2.9 percent of the wood pallets tested positive for Listeria, and half of these, when further tested, contained Listeria monocytogenes. Of 70 plastic pallets tested, 1 – or 1.4 percent – came back positive for E. coli. None of the other plastic pallets tested positive for pathogens.
In addition, high aerobic plate counts, which reflect unsanitary conditions of the pallets, were found on approximately one third of the wood pallets and one fifth of the plastic pallets.

Testing was conducted in late April and included 70 wood pallets and 70 plastic pallets. NCL shipped the samples overnight to an independent microbiology lab that provides testing services for a wide array of commercial, industrial, regulatory, and law enforcement clients. In a letter to the FDA, NCL described the results of its exploratory testing of wood and plastic pallets used to transport food in the greater Houston, Texas and Miami/Tampa, Florida, areas.

“Looking at the safety of pallets is crucial. Even if farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers were all to follow food safety plans and practices to the letter, the introduction of dangerous pathogens into the food supply during transport could negate these efforts…With approximately two billion pallets currently in circulation in the United States, the presence of dangerous pathogens on even a small percentage of those pallets presents a potential threat to the safety of the food supply,” wrote Sally Greenberg, the League’s Executive Director, in her letter to the FDA.

Several different aspects of pallet use and storage present potential food safety concerns. If a pallet is absorptive – i.e., has the capacity to absorb water and harbor bacteria – or difficult or impossible to fully clean, it could contaminate food products like fresh produce or meat. Regardless of the materials from which it is made, any pallet that is not properly cleaned between trips increases the likelihood of cross-contamination. Storing a pallet outside, in unsanitary areas, in places accessible to vermin, or near potential contaminants increases the chances that the pallet could harbor dangerous pathogens. In addition, the use of damaged wood pallets; splinters or sharp points can damage the packaging of products, creating an entryway for pathogens from which sealed products would otherwise be protected.

NCL has urged the FDA to do its own testing and set standards to help ensure that pallets are cleaned and stored properly, thus minimizing the possibility that they will be implicated in the spread of foodborne illness.

Read the full story from NCL and NCL’s letter to FDA.