Pallet contamination charges premature

The yeoman wooden pallet, a trustworthy supply-chain agent for some 60 years, is under attack. Much of the public, thanks to most of the media coverage, has placed blame for the 50-million-unit J&J McNeil product recall on contamination caused by a chemical byproduct of a treatment used on pallet wood.

Not so fast, says Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association. There's no evidence that the pallets caused the contamination. That's just one of several theories being developed by J&J, which told the FDA that it believes--not that it has confirmed--that the blame lies with the wooden workhorses. "The pharmaceutical industry is familiar with wooden pallets," he says in a phone interview. "They've never had a problem, and they won't have a problem."

Still, at least one plastic pallet maker is attempting to convert the theory to business advantage. "We call on Congress and the FDA to take a comprehensive look at the role wood pallets play in contaminating our food and drug supplies," says Bob Moore, CEO at Intelligent Global Pooling Systems, in a statement. He calls for FDA regulation of the wooden carriers.

Scholnick, who says he's in regular contact with J&J over the contaminated-pallet theory, finds it unlikely that wooden pallets are the culprit. First, because the medicine bottles themselves are not placed in contact with the pallets, the contaminant "would have to travel a long way," from the pallet and through a corrugated shipping container, a cardboard product packaging box, and then the plastic bottle itself. And such a scenario would produce a pervasive musty odor in the cardboard shipping boxes, alerting shelf stockers to the problem. But no such reports have been made.

In addition, the Puerto Rico-based company that made the pallets used by J&J has certified that the pallet lumber contained none of the fumigant suspected of generating the 2,4,6-tribromoanisole contaminant. "The fumigant is not used in this country by anyone, and it hasn't been for more than 15 years," Scholnick says. And there's been no such contamination traced to wooden pallets in a decade.

Scholnick notes that "93 percent of everything bagged and boxed rides on a wooden pallet." Plastic pallets have a four- to five-percent penetration, with the balance made up of corrugated and metal pallets. Some 1 billion to 2 billion wooden pallets traverse the U.S daily.

- visit the Wooden Pallet Association site
- here's the plastic-advocacy release
- see our earlier coverage