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Markets in Transition: Managing Outrage, Icky Pallets, Safety Issues at the Plant and Looking Ahead
Grocery industry columnist, Rick LeBlanc, explores the basics of risk communication when it comes to pallets and perceived industry problems.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 4/1/2012

††††††††† ďTrust me, Iím the expert.Ē Have you ever been upset and had someone tell you that you are making a big deal out of nothing? Did it have the desired calming effect on you or did it just get you madder?Iíve been on both sides of that particular conversation, and Iíve dealt myself a losing hand both ways.

†††††††† People get emotional as is their right, and how you handle that emotion can be either an opportunity to build bridges or to get into a needless escalation of bad feelings. Letís look at some outrage.

Icky Pallet Outrage

††††††††† Whether we are talking about brominated flame retardants on plastic pallets, or lab reports of bacteria or chemical treatments causing odor issues with respect to wood pallets, pallet sanitation has at times become a media flashpoint. The public has an innate fear about the integrity of the food system. When emotion gets jacked up over perceived threats to the food supply and public health, things can get ugly.

††††††††† The public isnít cutting any slack for the wooden pallet industry even though they have been used without incident for 60 years. Now we find out in laboratory testing of some dubious samples that they are teeming with bacteria, and our whole supply chain relies on them!

It is like after eating potatoes for

40 years a study suddenly announces that they are carcinogenic. Something that was an everyday item is suddenly transformed into an exotic and imminent threat to society, or so we are led to believe. The result is anxiety, and lots

of press coverage.

††††††††† I donít know about you, but the pallet food safety media circus sure seemed ridiculous to me. Blaming the wood pallet for bacteria caused by leaving it in a mud puddle is like blaming Toyota for drunk drivers. If the product is used irresponsibly, should the supplier be blamed? My first instinct was to blast other news outlets and tell them they were wrong. That, according to influential risk communication scholar and consultant Peter Sandman, is not a smart way to react.

††††††††† Sandman has spent his career studying risk communication. One of his findings was that the media cannot create a crisis, but most would certainly agree that the media can be an accelerant. In order for the media to fan the flames, Sandman would argue, there already needs to be a spark of concern smoldering. In the case of the wooden pallet safety scare, we saw a very deliberate campaign by some plastic pallet advocates to play upon peopleís innate fears about food safety.And the wooden pallet industry responded by raising concerns about plastic that were highly suspect as well.

††††††††† Even though there was no record of pallets being involved in food safety incidents, ďevidenceĒ of contamination, along with a shocking realization that the supply chain is full of pallets was enough to generate a lot of media coverage. To tell people they are mistaken about their concerns is just going to raise the outrage level and make the problem worse. The first order of business is to lower the outrage, unless as a competing product your goal is to crank the outrage up, which is exactly what happened in the pallet food safety skirmishes.

Developing an Appropriate Response that Will Be Heard by the Masses

††††††††† In Sandmanís view, an outraged public is never going to settle for the industryís point of view that a product, in this case wooden pallets, is perfectly safe. Agitators are more likely going to be pushing for the position that they are perfectly unsafe. Probably the best you can hope for is a middle ground where pallets are potentially moderately or modestly unsafe. And this ultimately is the position that the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) has taken through its work with the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). It is important for the industry to acknowledge that almost any pallet may be potentially unsafe if they are mishandled in the supply chain.

††††††††† After all, that is exactly what iGPS proved.Now the industry is working with the authorities to build a better understanding of how to ensure safe pallet usage. That is the kind of approach that will respect the point of view of those who are concerned, and that while calming outrage, will ultimately build a better, safer supply chain.

††††††††† While it is tempting to match the incoming outrage with your own outrage over wasting everyoneís time, the first order of business is to lower the outrage level. Listen and try to gain understanding. Outrage isnít necessarily good or bad, but Sandman suggests that the level of outrage should ideally be appropriate to the level of risk. That is where some wooden pallet critics went overboard hyping up situations that were not really as severe as some suggested.

Is Pallet Sanitation Still an Issue?

††††††††† With iGPS dialing down its media campaign against wood, lawsuits between the NWPCA and iGPS being shelved, and the NWPCA working with major pallet users to develop safe pallet handling practices, some might think that the food safety issue is in the rear view mirror for the pallet industry. But it isnít. The fact is that some people are still concerned about the cleanliness of pallets.

††††††††† The Canadian Wooden Pallet & Container Association (CWPCA) has been running a YouTube video for over a year about projects that can be done with old pallets. This video focuses on all the ways that people are reusing wood from pallets long after it has ended its usefulness in the supply chain as a pallet. According to the latest CWPCA newsletter, this YouTube video has been viewed over 700,000 times and has received 400 comments. Many of those comments suggest that wood pallets contain toxic chemicals or harmful bacteria. To me, this signals that there is still work to be done in getting across the positive message of the wood pallet and its proper handling, in order to decrease the risk of negative public relations in the future.††††††

Social media, Google searches and the effect of the Internet on public perception have forever changed the importance of dealing with public concerns. Even if the opinions held by those who are vocal on the Web are not backed up by the facts, the industry has to answer these issues with reasoned answers one person at a time.

††††††††† The pallet handling and sanitation guidelines in the final stages of development by the NWPCA are a clear example of bringing a reasonable solution to a potential concern.The good news is that these voluntary guidelines have been developed by collaboration between the industry and key user groups.

††††††††† As these guidelines are finished later this year, it is the wooden pallet industry that must spread the message that wooden pallets are safe if stored and handled properly. The issue of cross contamination, taint and sanitation are not unique to wooden pallets.Remember this mantra: Safe storage + Safe handling + Quality pallets = Safe pallets in the supply chain.

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