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.”