Stepped-up U.S. regulations on pallets and other wood packaging are likely on the way, though it’s unclear when, industry officials say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture set the wheels in motion in August, asking for feedback on ways to reduce the risks of spreading insect pests that hitch rides on wood packaging. The public comment period ended Oct. 26, and potential rule changes remain under consideration, according to the USDA.

“We are reviewing comments and considering the next steps,” Alyn Kiel, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said.

Bruce Scholnick, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, says it’s only a matter of time before new rules are adopted.
“I’m convinced it will happen,” Scholnick said.

He said the USDA is moving “too slowly.”

“These critters are going to keep moving, and we can’t stop them,” Scholnick said.

There are about 1.2 billion wood pallets in use in the U.S., according to the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association. Businesses that make, sell and repair the pallets generate about $5 billion revenue a year, Scholnick estimates.

The USDA aims to halt the spread of pests, primarily the emerald ash borer and the Asian long-horned beetle, that hide in wood packaging shipped from state to state. These insects pose “a serious threat to U.S. agriculture and forests,” according to a USDA statement prior to a series of public hearings that began last fall on the issue.

Options under consideration include requiring wooden pallets used in the U.S. be heat-treated or fumigated with methyl bromide.

Another option would require pallet pooling. Under a pooling system, packaging companies lease pallets to interstate shippers while retaining ownership of the individual pallets and employing “rigorous inventory tracking and management,” according to the Aug. 27 USDA statement.

Combining pooling with International Plant Protection Convention treatment standards “may provide sufficient mitigation of the pest risk,” the USDA said.

Regulators should consider other options, said Jim Anderson, general counsel of plastic pallet company Intelligent Global Pooling Systems. The Orlando, Fla.-based company rents plastic pallets to shippers and is waging a campaign against wood pallets, saying they harbor pests and pathogens.

Anderson said heat treatment and fumigation of wood pallets isn’t 100% effective.

The company sponsored a wood pallet test, taking random samples from wood pallets used to ship food from New Orleans; Portland, Maine; and Philadelphia. The company said results showed numerous positive tests for listeria and abnormally high bacteria counts.

However, the company did not test its own pallets in the same settings, claiming the difference in materials wouldn’t provide a scientific side-by-side comparison.

That’s an “apples-to-oranges” comparison, Anderson said. “The characteristics that make wood problematic don’t apply to plastic,” Anderson said.

Some U.S. produce shippers are already using pest-proof wood pallets.

Citrus marketer Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., uses treated-wood pallets for incoming international shipments and for product shipped within the U.S., said David Mixon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Regarding the proposed pallet rules, Mixon said “we are all in favor of protecting our growers, and if the USDA determines there is the possibility of pest contamination, we’re definitely in favor of it.”
The USDA may elect to take no action on the wood pallet proposals or to continue with the rule-making process, Kiel said.

If the USDA continues the process, it may issue a proposed rule, which would include an additional comment period. That may then be followed by the issuance of final rule, which would be sent to Congress for review.

“At this point, there is no timetable for any additional steps,” Kiel said.