Study: Contamination a concern for containers used to ship produce
posted by Kari Embree, Senior Digital Content Editor -- Packaging Digest, 10/14/2013 3:19:51 PM
A new study indicates that Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) used to ship fruit and vegetables in Canada pose a risk for contamination.
The report, developed by a University of Guelph researcher, calls the possibility for contamination a significant concern. "The main outcome of the study is that the RPCs meant to be delivered in a sanitary condition were not effectively cleaned. From a food safety perspective this could mean that pathogens such as salmonella, norovirus and cyclospora could be transferred to produce," explains Keith Warriner, author of the study.
Warriner, who is the food safety and quality assurance program director at the University of Guelph adds that, "in addition to human pathogens, it is also possible that plant pathogens such as Erwinia, Pseudomonas, Xanthomonas and Ascomycetes could be transferred, thereby resulting in premature spoilage of produce."
In Canada some retailers demand farmers ship fruit and vegetables, from the farm to the store, using RPCs. The containers are rented by farmers to ship their produce and then returned to the United States for cleaning. In Ontario, for example, RPCs are shipped to Chicago for sanitization.
Containers at Ontario and Quebec farms were tested for overall sanitary status (visual inspection and ATP testing), in addition to bacterial counts (total aerobic counts) that included potential fecal indicators (enterobacteriaceae and coliforms). Collectively, 64 percent of all RPCs failed in terms of sanitary standards and 56 percent of trays had a higher aerobic count than expected on a cleaned surface. Trays were sampled as delivered thereby ruling out contamination at the farm.
"The results provided evidence to make a case of potential hazards," says Warriner. "RPCs used to ship food are a recipe for disaster. We recommend that the decontamination method for RPCs be reviewed to prevent carriage and transfer of human pathogens."
The results also show a significant variation in the sanitary status of RPCs, and that many RPCs were damaged and visibly dirty. Visual inspection of RPCs revealed a proportion that were damaged or had labels affixed from previous use. While the root of this problem is unknown, inefficient cleaning systems and travel to-and-fro wash stations in the USA may explain the sanitary issues.
The study was commissioned following food safety concerns expressed by the growers who are told to ship fruit and vegetables using RPCs, rather than the traditional choice, corrugated boxes.
"We have heard anecdotal reports from growers that the RPCs delivered to their farms sometimes arrive dirty," says André Plante, general manager, Quebec Produce Growers Association. "For the safety of Canadians, we need to ensure all food in Canada is shipped using clean packaging, regardless of whether it is paper or plastic."
Commenting on the use of RPCs over corrugated by some packers and retailers, Mike Harwood, president/ceo of the World Containerboard Organization says he "believes produce retailers like to showcase their fruits and vegetables in corrugated packaging because boxes are a natural product, made from renewable wood fibre and are totally sustainable in our environment. Terrific retailers like Whole Foods, Publix, and Costco, just to name a few, realize that beautifully printed corrugated boxes also help them to sell more fresh produce to their customers."
For the record, the RPC industry does have rigorous cleaning and testing protocols. The tests conducted daily by RPC suppliers exceed accepted standards and have proven to be highly effective. I know of no evidence from either U.S. or Canadian food safety regulators to support any documented food safety issue with the use of RPC’s in the food supply chain.
In fact, Dr. Keith Warriner, Director of the Food Safety and Quality Program at the University of Guelph states in his own findings reported in the study summary, ”From the results it can be concluded that although there was no evidence of a food safety issue, it is recommended that the decontamination method of RPC’s be reviewed to prevent carriage and transfer of human pathogens.”
I think it is critically important for everyone to remain focused on the root causes of food safety issues in the supply chain. The reusable industry has an enviable food safety record and will continue to maintain a commitment to providing a safe and reliable means for shipping produce from farm to retailer. It is a recommendation of the researcher that decontamination methods be reviewed. In fact, ongoing review and improvement efforts are part of RPC providers’ regular practices, as they should be for all companies in the fresh produce supply chain.
Further, I should also point out that tests used in the study are considered indicator tests for pathogens. ATP does not test microorganisms, only the potential for them. ATP and APC testing measures all possible microorganisms, the majority of which are not hazardous. If there were dangerous microorganisms present the study researcher would not have concluded that there was no evidence of a food safety issue. In the discussion section of the study the researcher noted yet again, “...no E coli was recovered in any samples tested.”
In conclusion I think it is important that you look at this study in its totality. One aspect of the study might address concerns about sanitary conditions found in some of the containers studied in the field, but the most important conclusion cited was there are no food safety issues found on RPC’s.
All those involved in the produce supply chain – from container suppliers, farmers, shippers and retailers have an important role in maintaining a safe produce supply chain. We should all remain diligent in our commitments to food safety and to using studies such as this to continue this important dialogue on finding ways to improve our food supply in the future.
Jerry Welcome, President
Reusable Packaging Association
Jerry Welcome - 2013-15-10 13:42:42 GMT
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