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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: Cross Contamination – Real Threat or Media Hype?
Looking at the pallet contamination risk, there appear to be a lot bigger issues. Why focus on pallets? It’s simple; pallets are an easy target.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 7/1/2010

            Okay, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I know I risk being ostracized by others in my profession. But journalists like to scare the public. If you want to improve ratings, find a crisis in search of a real problem and publicize the heck out of it.

            The world, especially the United States, has been “threatened” by many things over the past ten years. This includes killer bees, toxic toys, runaway Toyotas, Y2K, mad cows, tainted produce, melting polar icecaps, radon gas, just to name a few. Where would we have been if it weren’t for the quick response and incredible alarm created by these looming problems? Sure, some of the threats may have been grounded somewhat in reality. But there remains little real proof to know for sure.

            I was reminded of this media trap when reviewing coverage of the potential link between pallets and cross contamination in the U.S. food supply. A number of news accounts connected dots that really don’t connect upon further analysis. The CBS Early Show carried a news segment in May in at least a few major cities and on the CBS News Website about the potential threat. This coverage was prompted by a survey released by the National Consumers League (NCL), a prominent consumer advocate organization.

            The NCL, www.nclnet.org, conducted a survey in late April of wood and plastic pallets to evaluate the risk of pallets to be a potential carrier of pathogens, such as E. coli and Listeria. The NCL found that pallets of all types could be a problem although wood posed a greater risk. Based on its somewhat limited study, the 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.”

            This study is significant because it is the first of its kind that evaluates risks associated with both wood and plastic pallets. Previously, Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) released studies of wood pallets related to the same issue.

            As the FDA evaluates food transportation guidelines, the agency recently mentioned setting pallet standards as one of the things it might do. NCL has called for pallet regulations without stipulating what exactly that could mean.

            “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,” wrote Sally Greenberg, the League’s Executive Director, in her letter to the FDA.

            The facts are still the facts. There have been no cases of food illness that have been directly tied to cross contamination by pallets. Is there a risk? Sure, there are almost limitless risks that humans take every day. But that doesn’t mean that new laws or rules should be written to address all of these situations.

            This is merely guilt by false association. The NCL press release and video mention outbreaks in Romaine lettuce, peanut butter and raw spinach. The catch is that none of these problems had anything to do with pallets. The outbreaks were all linked to other factors. The NCL’s video mentions these outbreaks and then points to a potential problem in the food supply – pallets. This is a classic case of linking two unrelated things and hoping that it raises fears with consumers.

            While it is possible that food could be contaminated by pallets late in the process, in most cases any real danger of contamination comes at the growing, production or packaging stages. Pallets are secondary packaging. Major poolers, such as CHEP, explicitly state in contracts with shippers that pallets are not meant for direct food contact. If there is any real risk of contamination, it means that the primary packaging has failed to do one of its primary duties, which is to protect the integrity of the item being shipped and sold.

            The NCL mentioned the absorptive characteristics of pallets as a concern if the contents of one load could contaminate another. The NCL stated, “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.” This statement indicates that its findings probably relate more to how companies use and treat plastic pallets compared to wood pallets than the actual biological properties of the raw material.

            The consumer group tested pallets for food borne pathogens, including E. coli and Listeria. NCL found that 10% of the wood pallets tested had E. coli present compared to 1.4% for plastic pallets.

            There are a number of things that need to be stated to clarify the results published by the NCL. Greenberg admitted in an interview with the Pallet Enterprise that the NCL survey was a very small sample size that was only intended to get the attention of the FDA, not come up with any conclusive data. Additionally, the NCL video showed samples being taken from extremely poor quality pallets with bird droppings and other visible signs of contaminants.

            Kudos to the NCL for testing both wood and plastic. But the survey is far from conclusive of anything other than the fact that pallets could be a carrier for dangerous pathogens. The same could be said for just about anything, including forklifts, conveyors, loading docks, truck beds, storage racks, etc. Greenberg said that the data was intended to highlight problems with how people are using and storing pallets instead of advocate for wood or plastic material in the supply chain.

            The real issue is storage and handling practices, not the pallet. If there is a problem with pallets at all, it results from the actions taken by food manufacturers and retailers. The real problem is that pallets do not get the respect that they deserve. 

            It is true that pallet storage and handling practices should be reviewed by companies transporting food and drug products to reduce any risk of contamination. But that is a far cry from calling for federal regulation of the industry.

            A group of industry representatives are looking to revamp the MH1 pallet standard to include voluntary provisions based on best practices to guide proper storage and handling of pallets. This could be used to educate pallet users who are the ones that really need to take notice because contamination risks stem from their action. More information on the MH1 standard can be found at www.mhia.org.

            Looking particularly at the pallet contamination risk, there appear to be a lot bigger issues to tackle to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply. Why focus on pallets? It’s simple; pallets are an easy target.

            John Stossel, consumer reporter with 20/20, wrote a few years ago, “For broadcast media, eyeballs equal ratings. For politicians, eyeballs equal votes. For activists, eyeballs equal support for their causes. For corporations, eyeballs equal sales. The bottom line: Worry and fear sell.”

            It is amazing how the news media look at each new story as a trend or potential epidemic. I remember how this was drilled into my head in journalism school.  The formula is simple. See isolated incident, look for trend, report incident as if it is a trend. Then later report a story declaring the exact opposite to be true.

            This pattern sounds a lot like what happened to Toyota. The only good news for the pallet industry is at least the situation has not gotten to the point that we have become the punch line for Leno or Letterman. Once that happens, it’s all over.

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