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Coming on the heels of the sweeping Tylenol recall, new scientific data from independent tests reveal more about the hidden dangers of wood pallets and the threat they pose to the foods we eat and the medications we rely on every day.
In the fifth in a series of independent tests conducted in cities from Portland, Maine, to New Orleans, wood shipping pallets that transport our food were discovered carrying bacteria and life-threatening pathogens that spread easily and endanger our nation's food supply. The latest round of testing comes from the New Orleans area, where 43 percent of wood pallets tested at an independent scientific laboratory came back positive for E. coli, Listeria and/or Salmonella, which sicken tens of thousands of Americans every year. One wood pallet tested positive for all three food-poisoning bacteria. The results are consistent with similar findings by USDA and FDA (see below).
The mounting evidence against wood pallets has caught the attention of public officials in New York, who are advancing legislation to ban the use of wood pallets for the transportation of meat and other fresh foods (Assembly Bill No. A09173).
"The evidence is irrefutable: wood pallets present dangerous risks to our foods and medicines," said Bob Moore, chairman and chief executive officer, Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS LLC), a plastic pallet rental service which commissioned the series of scientific tests on wood pallets and bacteria. "Our own independent testing, and this broadening drug recall, makes it clear that Congress and the FDA must take urgent action to protect consumers," Moore said. "Our food supply and our health are too precious. We can't afford to wait until something truly tragic happens."
Wood pallets have caused numerous consumer-safety problems in the past decade. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that a nurse was sickened after opening a medical kit with a musty odor that was identified as tribromoanisole (TBA), which was traced to specific wood pallets used in shipping and storage. In 1999, Coca-Cola recalled 14 million cases of soft drinks in Europe after hundreds of people reported feeling ill after drinking products that were found to have a strange odor, traced by the company to a phenol compound that was applied to wooden shipping pallets. TBA is a phenol chemical.
TBA is an anti-sap-staining chemical used on wood in South America, primarily from Chile and Brazil. It was the chemical contaminant cited in the recent Tylenol recall as causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain in at least 70 consumers, according to the FDA. TBA was supposedly removed from use in April 2008 by demand of Chilean wine producers who found that wood pallets containing TBA altered the taste of their wine.
Our Food at Risk
The wood pallets tested in the New Orleans area also had extremely high bacteria counts – the highest of any found in previous rounds of testing. Twenty-two of the 30 pallets tested had bacteria plate counts in excess of 100,000 counts/gram. Eleven of the 30 wood pallets tested had bacteria counts greater than 1 million counts/gram, with some readings as high as 20 million counts/gram. Those kinds of elevated bacteria counts are clear evidence of "unsanitary conditions," said John J. Pascale, an independent microbiologist who, as the Lab Director for ESS Laboratory of Bedford, VA, conducted the tests on the wood pallets collected in Louisiana.
"Any porous surface, like the rough-sawn wood used to make wood pallets, has the potential to harbor many types of bacteria - including food pathogens," said Pascale. "Wood pallets used indiscriminately around different types of food have an even greater chance for the possibility of cross-contamination of food products," Pascale added.
The new round of testing in Louisiana is the fifth set of tests on wood pallets commissioned by iGPS. iGPS gathered samples from wood pallets located at seafood retailers and markets in and around New Orleans and submitted them to ESS Labs for testing. All of the pallets tested were in regular use; in many cases the samples were gathered from wood pallets that had just been used to move food items. iGPS videotaped the unsanitary wood pallets in New Orleans and is making that video available today to the news media. Click here to view video.
Recent tests commissioned by iGPS have found Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and extremely high bacteria counts on scores of wood pallets pulled at random from public markets and retail food outlets in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and Portland, Maine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million food-borne illness cases occur every year in the United States. Salmonella bacteria cause at least 40,000 illnesses a year in the U.S., and an estimated 400 deaths, the CDC reports. E. coli is a potentially lethal group of bacteria that every year sickens more than 70,000 Americans. And Listeriosis is responsible for 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths in the United States annually - the leading cause of death among food-borne bacterial pathogens.
The iGPS test results are consistent with similar findings by USDA and FDA. A new USDA study found Salmonella-causing bacteria can be harbored on wooden shelving carts used for transporting eggs into processing plants. The FDA has also drawn attention to the health risks that wood pallets present. According to the FDA's Guidance for Industry: Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods (February, 2008), "In areas where RF-RTE [refrigerated-ready to eat] foods are processed or exposed, we recommend that you use pallets that can be easily cleaned and keep them in good condition, and that you not use wood pallets in areas where RF-RTE foods are processed or exposed or in other areas for wet processing and storage."
iGPS operates the world's first pallet rental service providing shippers and receivers with all-plastic pallets with embedded RFID tags. iGPS' state-of-the-art pallets are 30 percent lighter than wood, which saves on transport costs and helps reduce greenhouse gases.