Corrugated boxes have been used to pack and ship everything from office supplies to heavy equipment, industrial tools to electronics and food. There probably isn’t a single product that hasn’t been touched by corrugated at some point in its lifecycle. Corrugated containers are sturdy, economical and made in the USA by a thriving domestic industry. They are recyclable, natural and made from renewable resources. Most of all, they are high-performance shipping containers that protect their contents through the rigors of transport across the entire supply chain. Corrugated’s inherent cushioning qualities make it a highly protective shock absorber and its light weight helps optimize payloads for cost-efficient transportation.

As supply-chain dynamics continue to be scrutinized for food safety issues, scientific research repeatedly confirms that corrugated is also a safe container for shipping fresh produce. Periodic testing performed to a protocol designed by experts on food safety, microbiology and toxicology from the University of California-Davis and Haley & Aldrich, and sponsored by the corrugated industry, confirms corrugated containers used to transport fresh produce are safe and clean.

Conducted as a follow-up to prior industry-wide corrugated container cleanliness studies performed in 2014 and 2016, the study tested corrugated containers from various manufacturers, at three separate end-user locations, for the presence of two pathogenic indicator organisms: Enterobacteriaceae (such as Salmonella) and thermotolerant coliforms (such as E. coli).

Maryann Sanders, product stewardship leader and microbiologist at ERM consultancy, said that 99 percent of the samples evaluated showed bacteria levels “well below the sanitation levels of 1,000 colony forming units (CFU) per swab for the organisms tested.” The 1,000 CFU per swab threshold used in the study was defined by Keith Warriner, a food science professor at Canada’s University of Guelph. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not established guidelines for allowable microbial levels on packaging or fresh produce.

The data show continued due diligence on the part of individual manufacturers and the corrugated industry to mitigate potential sources of contamination and provide clean containers. Corrugated containers are used once before they are recovered for recycling, which eliminates the potential for lingering contamination that can result from multi-use shipping containers. After use, 90 percent of corrugated containers are returned to the paper mill for recycling, where high temperatures effectively kill any bacteria that may have been transferred from the product.

In this age of global commerce and big-business food production, foodborne illness continues to raise alarms. Food producers and retailers are accountable for maintaining a verifiable chain of custody so that when an illness breaks out, the source can be quickly identified and recalls put in place to stop the spread of disease. The newest research corroborates previous studies’ conclusions that single-use corrugated packaging is a smart choice for shipping and storing fresh produce, both because it is not reused and because it meets accepted sanitation standards during production.

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