I must confess I never heard of the "cutting board wars." But that food safety themed battle from decades gone by is being revived in what is being called the "pallet wars" ABC News ran a long feature about the controversy on their Web site called "Pallet Wars: Wood vs. Plastic for Food Safety"

From the story by Lauren Cox:

An estimated 1.2 billion pallets are in use in the United States alone -- in warehouses, in trucks, on the bottom of forklifts -- and for 60 years since the pallet's formal debut, safety issues for this ubiquitous piece of equipment have been minimal.

But in the last few months, pallet industry leaders have been caught up in brewing war over consumer safety that could easily rival the plastic versus wood cutting board battle of the 1990s.

On one side is the new competitor that distributes plastic pallets. On the other are larger, older companies and associations that deal with wooden pallets, such as the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.

Both are pointing to studies, or potential hazards caused by either plastic or wood. Given the Tylenol recall this December, which affected 60 million bottles, it's easy to see how a few contaminated pallets could affect many.

TK: The crux of the story is a study recently released by plastic pallet maker iGPS showing pathogens on wooden pallets in a multi-city survey. Wooden pallet makers counter that the survey didn't look at plastic pallets, and besides, there are other concerns about chemical flame retardents on plastic pallets. Plastic pallet makers counter, - well, you get the idea.

What will be the net effect of "pallet wars"? Perhaps not much.  From the story:

Trevor Suslow, a research specialist in food safety at the University of California, Davis, said he's not surprised by the high-stakes back and forth between the plastic and wooden pallet industry.

"It's a big market. No wonder they fight about it," Suslow said.

However, as the worries for contaminating produce go, Suslow said pallets have worked well enough that they do not cause a great deal of worry.

"In the hierarchy of things to worry about, it's not on the top of the list, because the product is not loaded directly on the pallet," Suslow said.

Indeed, according to Moore and Scholnick, the FDA only regulates three aspects of the pallet industry and two of the regulations have to do with permitting food items on pallets -- pallets coming into the country must be either heat treated, or treated with methyl bromide to remove pests, only stainless steel pallets can be used in a produce cooling technique called hydrocooling and no raw materials, especially meats, can directly touch a pallet.

"In just about all cases, pallet is a secondary packaging," Moore said.

These pallet wars are not over, however. Moore of iGPS added this a reader comment on the ABC Web site:

iGPS would like to clarify three points raised in Ms. Cox’s report. First, wood pallets are porous and absorbent. Results from iGPS-sponsored independent tests in five cities each show wood pallets harbor dangerous levels of bacteria and deadly pathogens including Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Also, wood pallets regularly break. Wood splinters, shards and rusty nails puncture products, serving as pathways for transmission of contaminants into products. iGPS plastic pallets are nonporous, use no nails, do not splinter, are reinforced by an internal steel frame and are inherently safer.

Second, comparing wood pallets to cutting boards is misleading. Cutting boards use expensive hardwoods with tight grains and small pores. They are cleaned after use and are stored indoors. Conversely, wooden pallets are made from softer species of woods (primarily Southern Yellow Pine) that are porous and absorbent, creating bacteria breeding grounds.

Importantly, the wooden pallet industry ignores its own guidelines and routinely stores wood pallets in unprotected outdoor areas, exposing them to vermin, biological and chemical contamination, and transmission of microorganisms.Third, the wood pallet industry spokesperson admitted that 2,4,6-tribomoanisole (the chemical used to treat wooden pallets that contaminated millions of Tylenol products and triggered the recent product recall) is banned in the U.S. Notwithstanding, pallets tainted with 2,4,6-TBA found their way here.

It is outrageous that even the wood pallet industry acknowledges there is a lack of control over wooden pallets, which clearly puts the safety of our food and medicines shipped on wooden pallets at risk.iGPS again reiterates that there should be uniform, national standards that apply to all pallets. Such standards would focus the debate in its rightful place: ensuring the integrity of our nation’s food supply.

 Bob Moore, chairman and CEO, iGPS Company, LLC

TK: I suppose both wooden and plastic pallets will be with us for many years to come, but I might give the long term edge to plastic.  After all, I think our household has two cutting boards - and both our plastic.