A recent consumer group study found more harmful pathogens on wood pallets than on plastic pallets.

But the study’s director said that does not mean plastic is safer, and she and a wood pallet industry official said no foodborne illnesses have ever been traced to wood pallets.

The industry official also questioned the study’s accuracy and pointed to a link between plastic pallets and possible carcinogen contamination.

The most recent study, by the Washington, D.C.-based National Consumers League, took samples from 70 wood and 70 plastic pallets in Florida and Texas, said Courtney Brein, the organization’s food safety and nutrition fellow and the director of the study.

About 10% of the wood pallets had E. coli on them (though not the most virulent strain, E. coli 0157:H7) and 2.9% tested positive for Listeria. Only one of the plastic pallets had E. coli.

Many samples were taken from pallets behind supermarkets, but Brein did not know whether any of them had carried fresh produce.

Despite the findings, Brein said the National Consumers League is not saying plastic pallets are safer than wood pallets. Instead, it is recommending that the Food and Drug Administration conduct much more thorough testing on wood and plastic pallets.

The study established no links between bacteria findings on pallets and foodborne illnesses, Brein said. And Bruce Scholnick, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, said that in more than 60 years of wood pallet use, no food-borne-related illnesses have been traced to pallets.

In April 2009, an FDA official said plastic pallets, such as those made by Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), Orlando, Fla., were not authorized for hydrocooling fresh produce because they contain the chemical decabromodiphenyl.

The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group then wrote a letter to FDA director Margaret Hamburg which claimed that during hydrocooling, decabro-modiphenyl, a carcinogenic flame-retardant, can be released from pallets and contaminate food. iGPS has denied that claim.
Since then, iGPS has launched a campaign calling into question the safety of wood pallets, Scholnick said.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ended a public comment period on wood pallets. The USDA is considering treatment rules on wood pallets not for patho-gens, however, but emerald ash borer and other pests.