Whether you are interested in using pallets for various projects such as a household compost bin, you are a consumer of food products, or you are a decision maker in the food distribution system, the relationship of pallets and food safety has become a topic of considerable interest in recent years. Here are some basic things to consider as you make your own decision with respect to whether or not to use wood pallets in your supply chain, or whether or not to use wood pallets for various home projects.
1. No Evidence of Relationship Between Wood Pallets and Food Contamination Illness
In spite of concerns raised by others, including certain representatives of companies representing competing products to wood pallets, the smoking gun just isn’t there. There is no evidence of food borne illness outbreak related to the use of wood pallets.
2. But Wood Pallets Can Be Contaminated
Over the last few years, one pallet company had several wood pallets analyzed at a laboratory, and found evidence bacteria, listeria and other harmful contaminants. Resulting press releases struck a chord with the media and the public, which has a innate fear of the potential for food contamination. There was a barrage of media attention. Based on video evidence that I saw, these looked to be pallets that had been improperly stored outside, and in wet conditions. If pallets have been improperly stored, then they are at greater risk of contamination. A few years ago, an artist arranged to have hundreds of old wood pallets brought into a public building in Seattle, to arrange into a work of art. The pallets were wet and old, and after a few days they had to be removed because of the smell and concern about mold. Having said that, we often see wood pallets used in public settings very successfully. Costco comes to mind of a company that effectively and safely uses stacks of wooden pallets as display tables.
Whether you plan to use pallets for a home project, or to move your goods, you want pallets that look clean and dry. This minimizes the risk of contamination.
3. The Issue of Direct Food Contact
Is wood safe for direct food contact? Absolutely, just look at the use of wood cutting boards. But having said that, proper handling of the cutting board is essential with respect to sanitizing, and avoiding cross-contamination of raw meat or fish, for example, and uncooked vegetables. The same holds true for pallets. Wood pallets work best when they come in contact with secondary packaging, the box that holds the vegetables inside, rather than direct contact with food. When I interviewed several food auditors last year, they were most interested that pallets were clean and dry, as well as of good quality so that product wouldn't be punctured by protruding nail heads or splinters. This, however was for applications without direct food contact.
4. Safety Precautions
If you are using pallets for the distribution of food products, safe handling practices dictate obtaining and maintaining clean and dry pallets, as well as ensuring that broken pallets are removed from use. Usually a pallet recycler will pick up reasonable quantities of standard sized pallets. Likewise for pallet hobbyists. There are a number of places one can look for free pallets, but it is a good idea to use only pallets that are clean and dry. Of course, use the same safety precautions you wood when woodworking in general, including gloves and other personal protective equipment appropriate to the task being undertaken.