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Reusable produce containers often contaminated

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By Jenni Spinner+


Research has shown reusable produce containers in Canada frequently are contaminated with pathogens.
Research has shown reusable produce containers in Canada frequently are contaminated with pathogens.

Up to 64% of reusable plastic containers (RPCs) used to ship fruit and vegetables are unsanitary, according to research.

Keith Warriner, the University of Guelph (Ontario) researcher at the help of the study, told that unclean RPCs used in food transport are “a recipe for disaster. “We recommend that the decontamination method for RPCs be reviewed to prevent carriage and transfer of human pathogens."

Many Canadian retailers require that producers ship their fruit and vegetables using RPCs. The containers typically are rented, used for shipment, then returned to the US for sanitation.

Threat to health and safety

Warriner, who serves as Food Safety and Quality Assurance Program Director at the university, added that the research points out that improper sanitation of RPCs poses a real health threat.

“RPC's if not properly cleaned could distribute pathogens across a wide area,” he said. “If a batch of lettuce contaminated with norovirus was transported in an RPC which then is used to transport tomatoes, then the risk is obvious.”

Additionally, Warriner said, on top of harboring pathogens that put human health at risk, the RPCs could carry Erwinia, Pseudomonas, and other plant pathogens that could lead to premature spoilage and loss of product.

Testing methods

Researchers tested RPCs at Ontario and Quebec farms, looking for overall sanitary status, as well as bacterial counts. In addition to most RPCs failing to pass muster in relation to sanitary standards, 56% of trays had a higher aerobic count than researchers anticipated.

Because the containers were sampled as delivered, researchers ruled out the possibility that they were contaminated at the producer’s location.

Upon inspection, RPCs often appeared damaged and dirty to the naked eye.

Some had stickers from different growers in the US and even Mexico, so obviously well-travelled,” Warriner said. “The ATP readings were high, in addition to some having high bacterial counts. Thankfully, the incidence of fecal indicators was low."

Keeping up appearances

According to André Plante, general manager of the Quebec Produce Growers Association, the study was generated in part because of member growers that had relayed anecdotes about taking delivery of RPCs that looked dirty and grimy.

For the safety of Canadians, we need to ensure all food in Canada is shipped using clean packaging, regardless of whether it is paper or plastic,” he said.

Warriner surmised that inefficient cleaning systems and mobile wash stations on the US end of the supply chain may be to blame. He suggested improved oversight over sanitation practices on the US end could prevent contamination, adding that some growers currently line RPCs with paper to help reduce risk.

Warriner and the University of Guelph team were contracted to perform the study by marketing communications agency Smithcom.

1 comment (Comments are now closed)

Study Finds 'no evidence of a food safety issue'

On behalf of the Reusable Packaging Association and its RPC member companies, I encourage everyone to read this study in its totality. The author, Dr. Keith Warriner states, "From the results it can be concluded that there was no evidence of a food safety issue." However, he recommends that "the decontamination method of RPC’s be reviewed to prevent carriage and transfer of human pathogens.” The RPA and its members agree that ongoing review and improvement of food safety practices are important for all members of the food supply chain.
The RPC industry already has rigorous cleaning and testing protocols. The tests conducted daily by RPC suppliers exceed accepted standards, and have proven to be highly effective. We know of no evidence from either U.S. or Canadian food safety regulators to support any documented food safety issue with the use of RPC’s in the food supply chain. The reusable industry has an enviable food safety record and we will maintain our commitment to providing a safe and reliable means for shipping produce from farm to retailer. - Jerry Welcome, President, Reusable Packaging Association

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Posted by Jerry Welcome
16 October 2013 | 17h122013-10-16T17:12:45Z

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