Reusable plastic containers used to transport fruits and vegetables have proliferated across the grocery industry in recent years despite recent warnings from university research studies suggesting the containers may harbor and spread harmful pathogens over time. Reusable_Produce_Container_406x250Responding to critics, the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA) has issued comprehensive, science-based protocols for the use of grocery containers for produce, while at the same time maintaining that no documented food safety issues have arisen related to their use. The guidelines cover the best practices for washing and handling reusable plastic containers (RPCs), as well as outlines for regular microbiological testing. The protocols reportedly took more than a year to finalize and received input from stakeholders at companies such as Safeway, Walmart and Dole. For growers, key food safety practices should include wrapping pallets of RPCs, transporting RPCs in covered trailers, and storing RPCs under cover, the RPA said. The association also asks retailers to handle and load RPC pallets like any other packaged commodity. “Creating stable and wrapped loads also helps prevent cross-contamination during transit and at the RPC provider’s facilities,” RPA said. The committee also developed protocols for adhesive labels that will not leave behind residues that could aid in potential cross-contamination. For RPC producers, the protocols most importantly cover best practices for microbiological sanitation and testing, as well as adherence to Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) standards for controlling potential contamination. RPA also recommends that RPC producers keep a trained employee on staff to ensure compliance with the HACCP program. In the past few years, at least three studies out of universities in the U.S. and Canada have concluded that RPCs can become contaminated and potentially transmit harmful pathogens from one food product to another, even after they’ve been cleaned and sanitized. Recent studies from the University of Guelph and the University of California – Davis both found inconsistencies and inadequacies in the cleaning and sanitization process of some RPC manufacturers, allowing them to leave behind fecal bacteria contamination. A study from the University of Arkansas published weeks ago found similar results. The RPC industry maintains that there is no evidence that the containers have caused any incidents of foodborne illness or cross-contamination. “Most RPC suppliers are already doing a thorough job of sanitizing and managing RPCs; however, they have different processes to achieve the end result,” said RPA Committee Chair Paul Pederson in a written statement. “Creating and documenting uniform best practices satisfies the need of users of reusables who need defined guidelines to share with members of their supply chains.”

  • Gary

    Great design to move and transport the product and for reuse! Terrible design for the safety and sanitation…way too many hard to clean places (nooks and crannies) making it difficult to clean and sanitize even with washing equipment designed for the cases.

    Need a new design and a strong regime of cleaning and sanitation for anyone using these. Scary…

    • Your right about that Gary. It seems like we should be using more science and technology to advance our agriculture system, even when it comes to engineering packaging and materials. Also, what about education to the end user. Most people believe that the produce on the grocery shelf is ready to eat and don’t even realize that they need to be washed.

      • Gary

        Public education is always tough, but it is on the forefront of industry initiatives. Check out the IFT website and the work they are doing with industry and trying to educate the public. We have a long way to go, but it is something industry and professionals organizations are doing right now.

  • Keith Warriner

    I am all for increasing the sanitary standards of RPC’s and recognizing there is a problem is the first step on the road. The guidelines must have also been written by the FDA as they are very vague and don’t even include microbiological testing standards to define what a sanitized container should be. Definitely a case of more research required.

  • MIchael McCartney

    RPCs are needed and these protocols and best practices are a significant forward in making our food supply chain safe. When will a similar study be done for corrugated boxes which are subject to the same packing and handling

    • Robert Tenny

      corrugated boxes usually have product that is film-wrapped or in a consumer package of some type (film bags, clamshells, etc.) before placing in the carton. If the product is not wrapped, then the cartons usually have a film liner. If the cartons are not lined and the product is not in a consumer package then the product is a type that should be peeled before cooking and eating.
      In addition, corrugated boxes are not likely to be reused for food products. Most companies adhere to a policy of “product containers used only for intended purposes” so to do a study for the food safety practices of cardboard would be a waste of money and would not really contribute anything to food safety.