A just-released University of Guelph study has raised serious health concerns about reusable plastic containers (RPCs) being used to ship fresh fruit and vegetables in Canada. Crates pose significant risks of microbiological contamination, claims the author, Director of Food Safety and Quality, Dr. Keith Warriner. Human pathogens such as salmonella, norovirus and cyclospora could be transferred to produce, he warns. Plant pathogens could also be transferred, resulting in premature spoilage. Using RPCs to ship food, he concludes, is “a recipe for disaster.” A full copy of the report and press release is available here
Admittedly this is a very limited (small sample) study. The Canadian corrugated box industry (which PPEC represents on environmental issues) also has a commercial interest in this matter since the traditional corrugated box and RPCs are duking it out for a share of the Canadian fresh produce market. The chief proponent of replacing corrugated with RPCs has been Loblaw and its crate rental partner, IFCO. Loblaw has been pressing Canadian growers to rent crates which are then shipped back to the United States for cleaning and re-use.
The problem, according to the Warriner report, is that the crates are not being cleaned well enough, thus posing potential food safety and contamination issues for both Canadian consumers and crops. Warriner found the washing and sanitisation process for the crates to be inconsistent and insufficient. Many of the crates observed were damaged (providing niches for contamination) and visibly dirty (something Ontario and Quebec growers have been complaining about for a while). Several crates still had labels attached from their previous use, suggesting they were inadequately decontaminated or avoiding the re-wash cycle south of the border entirely.
Canadian growers have been somewhat reluctant participants in this Loblaw-driven enterprise, and for commercial reasons have not been willing to say too much publicly. Now that the growers have some independent proof of the concerns they have been voicing all along, it’s time for Loblaw/IFCO to step forward and clean up their act. After all, if Canadians can’t carry a fresh apple or an orange across the border (for plant and human health and safety reasons) why shouldn’t the same principle (health and safety) apply to crates coming across the border, especially when, as Warriner points out, many of them are insufficiently sanitised and dirty?