Are Wood Pallets Safe for Transporting Food?

Sanitary Implications of Wood Pallets for Use in Food Distribution or Projects

wood pallet food safety
Rick LeBlanc, licensed to About.com

The relationship of wood pallets and food safety has come under scrutiny in recent years from consumers and supply chain decision makers alike, fueled by incidents such as the Tylenol recalls as well as claims by a plastic pallet manufacturer. In another notable recent case, I recently reported on a $5.3 million lawsuit by Starbucks involving wood pallets and mold. 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, and if so, how to manage their handling to ensure safety.

1. There Is No Evidence of Relationship Between Wood Pallets and Food Contamination Illness

There is no evidence of significant food-borne illness outbreak related to the use of wood pallets. In fact, some research suggests that wood pallets are safer than alternatives because contaminants are absorbed into the wood, while non-absorbent material pallets would leave contaminants on the surface of the pallet where they pose a greater risk of cross-contamination. 

2. But Wood Pallets Can Be Contaminated

If wood pallets are wet, however, and have reached the fiber saturation point, then contaminants will not be absorbed. Additionally, they will be vulnerable to the development of mold. Several years ago, one plastic pallet company looking to emphasize the superiority of its product had some 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 an 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 exposed to wet conditions.

If pallets have not been properly stored, then they are at greater risk of contamination.

3. The Issue of Direct Food Contact

The safety of wood products for direct food contact has long been debated, with proponents of wood pointing out the successful use of wood cutting boards, frozen fruit bar sticks, wooden spoons and more. Others argue that because wood is porous, it is more difficult to sanitize. Recent research supports that wood is safe for direct food contact. Another interesting perspective on direct food contact risk mitigation is offered by this article.

Wood pallets work best when they come in contact with secondary packaging, for example, the box that holds the vegetables, rather than direct contact with food. When it comes to non-direct food contact applications, food safety auditors are most interested that pallets are clean and dry, as well as of good repair so that product will not be punctured by protruding nail heads or splinters. 

4. What Does the Food Safety Modernization Act Require for Pallets

The Food Safety Modernization Act requires that pallets should not result in the harm of food. It does not require pallets of a particular material when used as tertiary packaging, or that they be sanitized for non-direct food contact applications.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials offers this direction:

  • All pallets shall be checked. Damaged, contaminated or unacceptable pallets shall be discarded.
  • Wooden pallets that come into direct contact with finished products or raw materials shall not be allowed to contaminate the product.
  • Wooden pallets, if used, shall be sound, dry, clean and free from damage and contamination

Increasingly, pallet suppliers are developing processes to ensure that pallets are kept dry and clean until they are delivered to the customer. Pallet users are also advised to follow a documented process to ensure that pallets remain safe for use through attention to proper handling and inspection prior to being placed under load.

5. What About Alternatives to Wood Pallets?

With the ever-increasing regulatory emphasis on food safety, some customers are looking at high-quality plastic or other non-wood pallets as being a lower risk solution for both direct or non-direct contact applications in that they are less likely to become damaged or broken, as well as being more readily washed or sanitized, as required.