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Offshore Production Remains Real Culprit: Drug Recalls Continue to Raise Pallet Contamination Questions
Drug recalls raise pallet contamination concerns for some foreign shipments and lead to misinformation in the marketplace.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 12/1/2010
Ever since recalls earlier in the year of tainted Tylenol bottles, the pallet industry has been fending off questions about the potential for pallets sourced for Puerto Rico to be the source of the problem. This has raised concern among some pallet shippers even though the chemical that is the source of the problem is not authorized for use in the United States and should not be a problem for domestically produced pallets.
Over the last few months, drug recalls by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Depomed Inc., and Pfizer have all involved the presence of 2,4,6 tribromoanisole (TBA), which results from the breakdown of another chemical called tribromophenol (TBP).
In the most recent action, Pfizer recalled 191,000 bottles of Lipitor for possible TVA contamination. In public statements, Pfizer has yet to place the blame solely on pallets. Although pallets may be the source because TBP is used to treat wooden packaging in some foreign locations, particularly the Caribbean and South America, the chemical also occurs in other products. Pfizer admitted “detecting TBP/TBA in the air, insulation, and paint, as well as in packaging materials (cartons, shrink wrapping and plastic bags), and in wooden pallets from a supplier that had stipulated the wood was not TBP-treated.”
TBA has been found to produce an odor that can make people nauseous or mildly ill when exposed to it. The chemical does not cause any major illness or sickness. But drug manufacturers are keenly aware of any potential contaminant that can impact consumers.
Overstating the Impact
Some of the news coverage has been on point. Other news reports have been way off base. For example, a blog post on CBS’ BNET titled, “How the Humble Wooden Pallet Paralyzed Big Pharma and Now Faces Extinction.” This blog post greatly oversimplified the issue and drew conclusions that are not warranted by the facts.
Jim Edwards, the journalist who blogged on the topic, pointed to the decision by Pfizer to use plastic pallets to solve its contamination concern as a potential indicator of a broad move away from wooden pallets. He wrote, “Pfizer has promised to switch from wooden pallets to molded plastic ones to solve the contamination problem, setting up a potentially interesting global paradigm shift in the shipping world. Could the wooden pallet, the workhorse of the 20th Century, go the way of the buggy whip and the steam engine?”
The problem with this is that Pfizer only stated that it was going to switch to plastic pallets for transporting empty bottles. Additionally, Pfizer commented that it was going to begin relocating “bottle production from Puerto Rico to alternate third-party plants.” It is quite interesting that all of the problems involving 2,4,6 tribromoanisole (TBA) took place in Puerto Rico not in domestic facilities. TBA is not authorized for use in the United States or in many other countries.
Pfizer has not made a wholesale switch away from wooden pallets according to its public statements. Pfizer is taking targeted action to counter specific problems with its foreign facilities and suppliers. Once again, this is as much an issue with foreign sourcing and lack of oversight as it has to do with pallets.
Edwards further stated, “The shipping business is slowly transferring to plastic for environmental reasons and because plastic pallets are stronger. Business may save money by going plastic. Pfizer is actually behind the curve in this innovation.”
The fact is that except for the rapid rise of Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) over the last few years, the number of plastic pallets used in the country remains fairly constant. Plastic pallets are ideal for closed loop environments. But many shippers still don’t have enough control over their supply chains to justify the higher cost of plastic. This is especially true when discussing global sourcing and sending pallets from foreign plants.
In a recent survey by Modern Materials Handling magazine, sustainability and environmental concerns were far from a top driver in regards to pallet and packaging decisions.
Some companies may choose to ship on plastic pallets in some scenarios. But this is not likely to be a global solution that is embraced by lots of companies or industries because the costs are too high, especially if you are not going to get the pallet back.
Plastic Pallet Response to Contamination Concerns
Looking to capitalize on recent drug recall concerns, iGPS has launched a premium service targeted toward the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.
The new service—“iGPS bios™ —follows a year of research into the unique needs of these critical industries, and provides a level of pallet hygiene and security that cannot be achieved with pallets made of wood or other organic materials, according to iGPS.
The iGPS bios program consists of several elements. First, iGPS pallets are certified by NSF International Food Equipment Certification. To receive this NSF certification, food-related equipment is required to be designed to prevent the harborage of pests and the accumulation of dirt and debris, as well as to permit easy inspection, maintenance, servicing and cleaning. NSF’s Food Equipment Certification Program includes rigorous testing, certification and production facility audits to verify compliance with these certification requirements. Annual audits of the production facility are also part of the certification process.
Pallets in the iGPS bios program are inspected to ensure quality. Then each pallet is individually washed and sanitized at an iGPS facility. The pallets are immediately enclosed in protective wrapping to maintain the hygienic condition.
Bob Moore, iGPS Chairman and CEO called iGPS bios, a “quantum leap beyond other platforms available today… This level of hygiene and platform quality is impossible with pallets made of wood.”
iGPS stated that wrapping will prevent bacteria, pathogens, and chemical contaminants, whether airborne or on supply chain surfaces, from contaminating bios pallets. Specifically iGPS claims that its bios program ensures that pallets delivered to customers are free of paint and toxic pesticides and fungicides, like TBA.
Moore said, “Each iGPS pallet has four RFID tags embedded in its frame, which enables tracking and tracing throughout the supply chain.”
This tracing technology can be used to identify problem loads thereby reducing the scope of a potential recall. Of course, this only works well if RFID scanning is done across a specific supply chain or iGPS employs its Spider® AT tags for a customer where a recall occurs. The Spider® AT is a battery-powered GSM/GPRS/GPS wireless tag that can transmit critical information about iGPS pallets, including iGPS-defined alerts, specific events and highly-accurate pallet location.
While it is certainly newsworthy that iGPS is tackling the sanitation issue with an innovative program, the service offering may not address the real world challenges that led to recent drug recalls. For starters, wooden pallets have not been proven to be the cause of the contamination linked to TBA. Most importantly, these pallets were not produced in North America, and the drug shipments were all traced back to plants in Puerto Rico where iGPS does not currently offer service. Additionally, TBA-free pallets can be obtained by sourcing new wood pallets manufactured in this country.
iGPS is offering a service that may be important for some drug companies. However, a similar result may be able to be achieved by wooden pallet companies for less cost because all the steps outlined by iGPS may not be necessary.
Contrary to what iGPS suggested, wooden pallets can be cleaned and wrapped if necessary. iGPS has gone to extensive lengths to make the sanitation issue a core advantage. But even in this area, plastic has similar requirements to wood because the risk of contamination exists for pallets moving through the supply chain regardless of the material used in the pallet.
The only way to ensure that pooled recycled pallets are 100% sanitary and clean from debris is to inspect, wash and wrap them. But this may do little beyond add significant cost and hassle to the supply chain.
Except for the TBA incidents that have appeared in the news over the last year, it is clear that pallets are not a significant source of contamination. And even in those incidents, the jury is still out.
Shippers must remember that pallets are not intended for direct food or drug contact. Pallets should be sourced from reputable suppliers that back up what they provide. Pallets produced in trouble spots, such as Puerto Rico, need extra scrutiny.
Wooden Pallet Industry Response
The wooden pallet industry should consider developing its own system to offer a premium sanitized pallet. But it can probably do so for less money and hassle than what iGPS has proposed.
Additionally, wooden pallet suppliers need to be aware of the recent drug recall issues and be ready to discuss any possible concerns with customers. Otherwise, a problem that isn’t really a problem could become a worry for shippers. Pallet companies should take steps to assure customers that the products they supply are safe.
The pallet industry should also be ready to answer reports in the media that may cast widespread dispersions, such as the recent blog post mentioning the extinction of the wooden pallet.