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Drug Recall Fuels Pallet Makers’ Feud over Advantages of Wood vs. Plastic
Monday, 11 January 2010 00:00

A recall of batches of a Tylenol pain product has rekindled the long-simmering marketing battle between purveyors of competing versions of one of trucking’s most ubiquitous tools: the lowly pallet.

The latest chapter in the competition between wooden and plastic pallets began quietly in November when medical giant Johnson & Johnson began a recall of all Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplet 100-count bottles that included what the company calls its red EZ-Open Cap.

A chemical used to keep the wooden pallets free of bugs and fungus is believed to be the source of a nauseous odor that prompted the recall, said Tylenol’s maker, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of McNeil-PPC.

Freight moves in and out of trucks on the nearly 1.4 billion pallets circulating daily, according to the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.

While plastic pallets are gaining market share, according to NWPCA, 93% of all pallets are still the familiar wooden versions.

McNeil ordered the recall, but federal Food and Drug Administration spokesman Christopher Kelly said the FDA is working with the company to confirm the source of the problem.

The odor reported is apparently because of trace amounts of a chemical “believed to be the breakdown of a chemical used to treat wooden pallets that transport and store packaging materials,” said McNeil spokesman Mark Boston.

The trucking industry may handle billions of pallets each day, but it has little input on them.

“If a shipper chooses to use a particular pallet, the carrier has no say in it,” said David Miller, senior vice president for global policy and economic sustainability at Con-way Inc.

In the nearly 40 years he has been in the freight business, Miller said, he never encountered a pallet problem like the one that appears to have sparked the drug recall.

“We need to counsel regulators not to overreact to limited or isolated issues, and attempt to solve them by proposing broad-brush regulations that could affect how an entire industry operates,” Miller added.

Brian Daugherty, senior vice president for quality at Bulkmatic Transport Co., said, “Unless the carrier sprayed the chemical on the pallets, how would the carrier or the driver even know?”

Once pallets surfaced as an issue in the recall, however, wooden and plastic pallet suppliers squared off in a public relations battle over which are safer.

Bob Moore, founder and chairman of Intelligent Global Pooling Systems, a firm that leases plastic pallets, said wooden pallets are a “breeding ground for bacteria” that can cause cross contamination in the food supply chain.

Because pallets circulate constantly, Moore said, the wooden ones can pick up bacteria at, say a meat packing plant, and later infect products at another plant — for instance, a sugar refinery.

“Everything we eat and drink gets to where we bought it at on a pallet, and it typically gets there on a wooden pallet,” Moore said.

He also said wooden pallets are made largely in South America, where they are treated with the same fumigant used on the pallets in the Tylenol case.

The substance is methyl bromide, which the Environmental Protection Agency Web site lists as banned in the United States because it depletes the ozone layer.

Bruce Scholnick, president of the NWPCA, fired back, saying Moore is trying to save a business based on plastic pallets that contain a fire-retardant chemical, deca, which is being banned.

EPA, which has found deca in human tissue and breast milk, announced in December that it had reached an agreement with deca manufacturers to phase out the chemical by 2013.

“If they’re phasing out the deca, they’re going to have to find an alternative,” Scholnick said of the plastic pallet suppliers. “But it is three times the cost of deca and they have to use substantially more of it,” Scholnick said.

Moore said that pallet manufacturers have an alternative retardant that will be ready by the phase-out date.

Although McNeil, the drug company, has said that the pallets and packaging stored on them appear to be the source of the problem, spokesman Boston did not respond to questions about where the caplets or their packaging were manufactured here or abroad.

Nor did Boston respond to questions about where the drugs or their packaging components were stored, or how the Tylenol was shipped to retailers.

The pallet association’s Scholnick does not dispute that in the Tylenol case, the pallets, or at least the wood used to make them, probably came from South America.

“We know that [the chemical is] banned in the United States in terms of being used as a fumigant . . . but it can come into this country . . . because nobody checks for it,” Scholnick said.

The trucking industry is not in a position to say whether wooden or plastic pallets are better, said Clayton Boyce, a spokesman for American Trucking Associations.

Plastic pallets are lighter, which appeals to some carriers because that could reduce fuel use and be easier for workers. But wooden pallets are less costly, Boyce said.

“Plastic pallets are nice, but they cost more,” said Daugherty of Bulkmatic. “Insect infestation is less likely, but plastic can still carry bacteria and other contaminants unless they are sanitized,” he said.

Transport Topics, 1/11/2010