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Archive for RPCs

Retailers can’t duck food safety issues when pushing growers to re-use crates

A third, more extensive testing of plastic crates used to ship fresh produce throughout Canada shows some handling improvements but still found sanitary issues such as high total aerobic and yeast and mould counts, and the presence of E. coli.

Crates continue to fail food contact standardsStudies demonstrating inconsistent washing practices and biofilms surviving common industry cleaning methods had earlier led food scientists to claim that re-using crates for produce was “a recipe for disaster,” and that the live bacteria observed on them was “like a smoking gun.”Dirty RPCs

The latest study, co-ordinated by Dr. Keith Warriner, Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Guelph, was performed at different locations in British Columbia (with Dr. Siyun Wang at UBC), Ontario, and Quebec. Dr. Warriner was also responsible for earlier Canadian studies in 2013 and 2014. His findings have been replicated and supported by similar US-wide studies by the University of California (Davis) and the Centre for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas.

Some improvements were noted in the latest testing: no broken crates, for example, and fewer crates with stickers or labels from previous users. Processors were starting to return unclean crates. The lower incidence of fecal indicators could reflect better handling practices, the study says, but the overall number of crates failing on total aerobic counts had increased. They were unacceptably high and didn’t meet commonly accepted standards for food contact surfaces, said Dr. Warriner.

Dr Warriner noted that the major crate supplier, IFCO, had declined to release the standards or criteria by which it judged a crate to be sanitary since independent testing of reusable crates had begun in Ontario and Quebec in 2013. Food scientists, retailers, and consumers needed to be confident that sanitisation standards were based on appropriate risk assessments, said Warriner.

There was another issue, he added. Crates were potential carriers for pests or plant pathogens that could devastate growers’ crops and be challenging to irradiate. The relatively free movement of crates across borders was the weak link in our biosecurity system for protecting growers’ crops and livelihoods, he said.

Organic fruit and vegetables, for example, were widely assumed by the public to be pesticide-free. Recent surveys, however, had shown evidence of pesticides on almost half of fresh organic produce. Chemical pesticides were much longer lasting than biological hazards, and if they were present, would be far more challenging to remove by washing.

 

PLEASE NOTE: PPEC represents the corrugated box industry on environmental issues. Unlike the reusable crate system, the corrugated box system for produce provides a fresh and sanitised box for each delivery. Fresh doesn’t mean cutting down trees. In fact, most corrugated boxes made in Canada are 100% recycled content, partly made from those very same produce boxes that Canadian retailers bale up at the back of their stores and for which they receive significant revenue.

The boxes are recycled several times over the course of their lives, and meet rigid process control standards in their remanufacture. In a typical mill recycling process the temperature of the paper sheet reaches 220-240 degrees Fahrenheit, well above 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water and the temperature required for sterilisation. The converting process also involves high temperatures and other hygiene controls.

Having a fresh box every time minimises the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer. A recent independent study of corrugated produce boxes showed that the corrugation process destroys bacteria. Another study released in February 2015 revealed that every single one of the 720 corrugated boxes from six different box suppliers tested at six different customer locations, in three different regions (the Northwest US, California and Florida), met acceptable sanitisation levels.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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A moving (and puzzling) story about dead Toronto chickens

Chickens are not something we would normally write about. And, in fact, this little story has less to do with dead chickens than with how they journey across Toronto in the after-life before landing between our knives and forks. Let me explain.

Until very recently in Toronto, fresh cut-up chickens were placed on foam trays with stretch wrap then placed in a corrugated box with their unfortunate comrades and trucked from the processor Chickens voyage across Torontoor packer to a retailer’s distribution centre. From there they were trucked to various retail outlets across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for us to pick up and take home.

A truck can typically deliver about 12,000 knocked-down corrugated boxes to the chicken processor per trip. And the retailer ending up with the box receives revenue for sending that box on for recycling. Current revenues for old corrugated containers (OCC) are about $100 a tonne.

This circular loop system has been working very well, but now one major retailer has decided to change things up, forcing the chicken processors to do something different if they want to remain suppliers. We don’t have a problem with change but are very puzzled at the logic, extra costs, and increased environmental burden that this new move seems to entail, especially when that same retailer is telling the public that it is cutting carbon and improving the efficiency of moving goods.

The chicken processors in this example are now being forced to use what are called reusable plastic crates (RPCs) to deliver chicken. The costs of the box and the crate are roughly equal but because the crates take up more space on a truck you now need not one (corrugated) truck but four (plastic) trucks to deliver the same quantity of containers. More handling, more miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs.

And in the crate scenario, someone must pay the (extra) cost of returning not one but four truckloads of crates to a distribution centre (which may be within or outside the GTA, or even out of province). Then that same person or someone else pays for trucking the collected crates to a wash centre, also possibly outside the GTA, out of province, or even in the US, so that the crates can be used again. More handling, more travel miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs. And unlike in the corrugated box scenario, the retailer gets no revenue for returning the crates.

The chicken processors seem to be taking a major financial hit in this new arrangement. They now have not one truck in their yards delivering packaging but four, and those idling trucks must make it difficult to coordinate production flow at the plant (increasing their labour costs). They also now have the added expense of buying a polybag liner to protect the contents of each crate from leaking. Salmonella poisoning through pathogen transference is a major health risk when processing chickens and packing in crates that are to be used again.

What’s packaging got to do with the price of chicken? Maybe more than we think. Transportation and packaging are responsible for about 9% of the total greenhouse gas contributions of the poultry supply chain. If the crate transportation system outlined above costs more, and the environmental burden is greater, won’t those extra costs eventually be passed on to you and I as chicken-loving consumers?

The chicken processors will almost certainly be forced to pick up the tab, and will no doubt try to pass on their new costs to their customers (meaning us, eventually). But the biggest victim in this puzzling trial would seem to be the environment. Whichever way you slice it, it’s the planet that should be crying foul!

 

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

More Posts - Website

Retailer hands container choice back to growers

A major produce retailer in Canada has decided that the growers who supply it with fresh fruit and vegetables should choose which container to deliver their produce in, the traditional corrugated box or a reusable plastic crate, rather than the retailer telling them which one to use.

This is a significant development in the crate versus box struggle for market share in this sector, even though the company says it’s only a trial. In recent years, some retailers have basically told their growers which container to use whether the growers liked it or not, a sore point with many growers who feel they have been left to carry the can on health and safety liability, and other issues. Now at least they have a choice.

The backdrop to this, of course, are the claims and counterclaims for economic and environmental superiority traded by the crate and box lobbies, and a heightened concern about the effectiveness of crate sanitisation. Stay tuned.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

More Posts - Website