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Looking for an Official Solution: Industry Confusion, Concern over Moldy Pallets
There is a growing fear in the market of regulatory intrusion. But it doesn’t appear that the FDA is looking at regulating mold treatments for pallets, according to one source.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 7/1/2010
Although mold is nothing new for wooden pallets, a number of factors are coming together this year to form the perfect storm. The entire situation has been confounded this year by mass confusion and concern over using any chemical treatment option in a heightened regulatory environment.
Recent recalls by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson, has caused many pallet users to be squeamish about using chemical treatment for pallets. Rightly or wrongly those recalls were connected by the drug manufacturer to tribromophenol (TBP), a chemical fungicide that is banned in the United States.
There is no direct correlation between TBP and any of the major mold treatment chemicals used in this country. The fear in the marketplace is completely based on concern over liability and not wanting to make a mistake that results in the same public relations nightmare and regulatory scrutiny that McNeil has received.
“Our clients won’t look at anything, unless it has FDA approval,” said Randy Brown of Ongweoweh, a national pallet broker and management company
There is a growing fear in the market of regulatory intrusion. But it doesn’t appear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking at regulating mold treatments for pallets, according to Matt Foley of X-M Industries, which makes the X-Mold/E-Fusion treatment chemical for pallets.
Foley said, “We can’t wave a magic wand and make liability go away.” But he added that X-Mold has conducted discussions with FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety that indicates the agency does not intend on regulating X-Mold or other similar pallet treatment products.
While the FDA does regulate food additives, its focus is on substances where “the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristic of any food.”
Foley stated, “The bottom line here is that X-Mold’s E-Fusion does not meet the FDA’s definition of a ‘food additive.’ In its intended use, as a ‘wood sealant’ for pallets, E-Fusion is not reasonably expected to become a component of food, and is thus not subject to regulation by the FDA.”
ISK Biocides offers PQ-80, which has been used for years in agricultural industries as well as pallets and lumber. Lance Johnson, district sales supervisor with ISK Biocides, said, “Regarding the statement put out today from X-mold, my understanding of what FDA is saying is that if you are certain the treatment can not possibly migrate to or come into contact with the food or product on the pallet, you don’t need food contact approval. It is the user’s responsibility to determine whether or not it is possible. If you can not deem it impossible for that to occur, you need food contact approval. PQ-80 has that approval.”
The active ingredient for PQ-80 was approved years ago as a wood preservative for direct food contact in raw agriculture operations. This has later been applied by some to pallets even though that was not the original focus. X-Mold claims that after discussion with the FDA, the agency does not have an existing approval process in place that covers its product nor does the agency intend to develop such a requirement.
X-Mold contends the electrostatic process that can be used for its treatment actually causes the chemical to bond with the wood reducing the likelihood of leaching onto shipped products or into the environment. Currently, it is conducting a migration study to prove its assertion.
Ron Jones, president of X-M Industries, said that under the normal situations of packaged foods, we do not believe that our chemical or process fits the requirement of a food additive and is thus exempt from FDA approval.
The FDA is not the only agency in the mix. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for registering pesticides and fungicides. X-M Industries claims its product is exempt from EPA registration. X-M Industries stated, “All of the active ingredients in E-Fusion have been properly registered and approved for use by the EPA as mold and mildew resistant agents.”
ISK Biocides boasts its chemical has been registered with the EPA. Johnson said, “The EPA label is the final word on what can or can’t be done with a product. EPA periodically reviews registrations so even though a product has been around for a long time does not mean that it can contain ingredients that were accepted years ago but are not “ok” today…A product which is not a registered pesticide would not receive this periodic scrutiny.”
In the end, each company is going to have to decide for itself what are the best solutions to the mold problem. Pallet suppliers will do what customers want. And at this point, pallet customers want mold free pallets without the use of chemicals. But that has created a nearly impossible situation because a pallet company may deliver mold-free pallets that become moldy three days later due to practices taken by the shipper. Foley countered, “You can’t have no chemicals and no mold.”
Beyond just the liability issue, mold is a bigger concern this year due to tighter log inventories shrinking the amount of time between when a tree is cut, processed and made into a pallet. This means higher moisture content in raw materials, which translates into perfect conditions for mold to develop. Weather down South has also added to mold concerns this year.
One major pallet company in the Midwest pointed to globalization as a driver for mold concerns. This industry veteran indicated that pallets are shipped in sea containers with little to no thought about mold issues until a shipment arrives at a foreign destination with mold on it. Also, different chemicals may be used in some countries and not in others to control pests, mold or other concerns. This is exactly the cause that McNeil blamed its contamination problems on.
Some shippers mistakenly connect treatment for killing pests with stopping mold. Heat treatment can actually make mold conditions worse by bringing moisture to the surface of the pallet. Pallet users need to understand that heat treatment according to ISPM-15 will not stop mold.
Something is going to have to give to force a more workable solution. But it seems that pallet users won’t authorize treatment without government approval, and yet the FDA doesn’t really care about pallets and mold.
The concerns raised due to the McNeil recalls appear to be handled by one group in the FDA while the regulation of pallet treatment chemicals falls under a different group. While they may be talking, anyone familiar with the federal government knows that this doesn’t necessarily mean there is any significant coordination going on. And honestly, the real problems at McNeil had less to do with the pallet and more to do with manufacturing standards, practices and lax oversight in its offshore facilities.
A major East Coast pallet company told the Pallet Enterprise that many pallet users are waiting to see what happens with Johnson & Johnson. If this drug manufacturer green lights a solution, other pallet users sensitive about labeling and liability could follow suit. However, it is clear that playing following the leader may not be the best solution. According to McNeil, its problems at facilities in Puerto Rico stemmed from TBP not the typical challenges associated with wood and mold. Pallet users should work with knowledgeable suppliers to address each and every unique situation.