In the wake of the recent recall of E. coli-tainted romaine lettuce, the nation's oldest consumer organization, the National Consumers League is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set minimum sanitary and safety standards for "unregulated but crucial" pallets that are used to transport food throughout the United States. 

The move by NCL follows its recent exploratory tests to determine whether pallets are potential carriers of pathogens, as concerns grow about the link between pallets and contamination of food and pharmaceuticals. The consumer group tested pallets for foodborne pathogens, including E. coli and Listeria. The findings were alarming: 10% of the wood pallets tested had E. coli present (though not the most virulent strain, E. coli O157:H7). 

 In a letter to the FDA, NCL described the results of its exploratory testing of wood and plastic pallets used to transport food in the greater Houston and Miami/Tampa areas. Testing was conducted in late April and included 70 wood and 70 plastic pallets in total. NCL shipped the samples overnight to an independent microbiology lab that provides testing services for a wide array of commercial, industrial, regulatory and law enforcement clients. 

"We believe it is essential to ensure that pathogens are not introduced at any step along the food transport system, from farm to fork,” says Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director. “Our testing of pallets has shown that these relatively unregulated but crucial parts of the food transportation system can and do harbor dangerous pathogens that could potentially contaminate the food supply."

Additionally, 2.9% of the wood pallets tested positive for Listeria; half of these were found to harbor Listeria monocytogenes, one of the most virulent foodborne pathogens that causes 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths in the United States yearly. Of the 70 plastic pallets tested, 1 – or 1.4%– tested positive for E. coli only. 

Also, aerobic plate counts at levels that reflect unsanitary conditions were found on approximately one-third of the wood pallets and one-fifth of the plastic pallets. 

Wrote Greenberg in her letter to the FDA: "Looking at the safety of pallets is crucial. Even if farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers were all to follow food safety plans and practices to the letter, the introduction of dangerous pathogens into the food supply during transport could negate these efforts….With approximately two billion pallets currently in circulation in the United States, the presence of dangerous pathogens on even a small percentage of those pallets presents a potential threat to the safety of the food supply.” 

Problematic areas include moisture absorption, contamination, pallet damage and lack of proper sanitation.