Keep an eye on one of the least considered plant tools. It could make a huge difference in your food safety plan.

One of the least respected but most important tools for smooth food plant operation is the pallet. It brings in ingredients, raw materials and packaging materials; it moves things around the plant and finished goods out. Yet, in the hundreds of food plants I’ve visited, only a handful had a documented pallet management program. Pallet management should consist of the following elements: specifications, storage, inspection, use within and outside the plant, maintenance, shipping requirements and cleaning.

If you store pallets outside, ensure they’re covered with an overhang and placed on rails or blocks a minimum of six inches above the ground since storing them on the ground allows those on the bottom to get wet and allow insects easy access. In addition, pallets should never be stored against walls either indoors or outside. Plus, don’t store pallets, which can harbor pests, close to access points.

In production environments, pallets should be individually inspected before being brought into the warehouse or production area, especially when they’re stored outside.  Many users equip the inspection area with compressed air hoses that allow the operator to remove pests and dirt. In addition, the inspection step must ensure pallets are in good condition. Any pallets that are splintered or have broken boards or loose nails should be set aside for repair or recycling.

 A pallet management program should define how pallets are cleaned and/or repaired. If plastic pallets are used, they should be washed according to the master cleaning schedule or more frequently if they’re badly soiled.

Programs must also specify what products can be previously stored on pallets. For example, food and beverage processors should not accept pallets previously used to ship waste or chemicals, nor should they accept pallets that may be have been soiled with animal byproducts or waste.

Independent laboratory studies have demonstrated pathogens and other indicator organisms can be isolated by soaking pallets in sterile water or soaking wood shavings from those pallets in the same medium. The work has demonstrated that past uses of the pallets clearly relate to the micro flora recovered. For example, Salmonella were routinely isolated from pallets used for poultry. The same requirements you demand of shipping containers should apply to pallets: clean, no infestation, no off-odors and used for foods only.

There is a trend for processors to utilize both wooden and plastic pallets. The rule of thumb is that anything moving into the production area is moved on a plastic pallet. A plastic pallet can be cleaned and sanitized, and it eliminates the potential contamination from wood and metal (nails or staples) in a production area. In addition, some audit schemes will downgrade a facility for having wood in a processing area.

To be effective, a pallet management program must be fully documented and managed. Work instructions or procedures should clearly define who is responsible for what, and outline procedures and expectations. All workers involved with the program must be properly trained and documented. 

To test your program’s effectiveness, conduct and document a risk assessment. Look for small gaps that could create problems in the future.

Although pallets often don’t often get much respect, they have been implicated in infestations and cross-contamination with physical, chemical and biological hazards. Make sure that this simple yet essential tool does not pose a risk.