Food safety can be an obsession when it comes to consumption of processed foods manufactured by the industry in thousands of facilities with different hygienic, handling,and sanitary practices. Series of food poisoning episodes reported from different parts of the world in recent times do not help to boost consumer confidence on the ability of the industry to ensure absolute safety of processed foods available in the market. While it is quiet understandable that any indifference in the shop floor can reflect on the quality and safety of foods prepared there, the recent row about the vulnerability of pallets used for transport of packed foods as a carrier of pathogens may be a little too far fetched. But the findings by a group of investigators about high contamination of wooden pallets may call for more vigilance by the industry.
"The food safety/pallet issue re-emerged as headline news last week with the NBCLA story entitled Can Shipping Pallets Contaminate Your Food? Reporters went to a produce market and sampled water that a pallet was sitting in, not surprisingly finding it to be contaminated. This investigation was spurred by new sampling results from plastic pallet rental company iGPS, which found that "…one in every six wood pallets that transport food in Los Angeles, CA tested positive for one of three types of pathogens that spread easily and endanger the nation's food supply and the lives of American consumers." Either E. coli, Listeria, or Enterobacter cloacae, a bacterium that causes sickness and even death in people with lowered immune systems, were found on one in every six wood pallets tested in Los Angeles, according to the iGPS release. Tests were conducted in multiple locations in Los Angeles on both wood and plastic pallets used by supermarkets, restaurants and seafood retailers. In addition to the pathogens, the Los Angeles testing showed that 50 percent of all wood pallets sampled contained high bacteria counts in excess of 100,000 spores per gram, indicative of unsanitary conditions. Four of the wood pallet samples had bacteria counts in the millions of spores per gram range. Conversely, no pathogens and no high bacteria counts were found on any of the plastic pallets tested".
Pallets are generally used in products storage area and as long as this section is segregated from the processing facilities, there may not be much danger. The personnel working in pallet loading section also need to be barred from entering processing area to prevent cross contamination. That plastic pallets are free from harboring harmful bacteria and their hardy spores is a welcome relief for the industry and wooden pallets are increasingly being phased out, any way, on cost and availability considerations. As the study is funded by the organization that rents out plastic pallets to the industry, independent confirmation may be needed for added credibility. Probably industry may be well advised to sanitize the pallets, whether plastic or wooden, being used on a regular basis to give no quarters to the possibility of harboring contaminating pathogens.