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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

Plastic Explosion

A series of incidents where pharmaceutical companies have been forced to recall contaminated products has recently put pallets in the spotlight. Pallets play a vital role in the pharmaceutical industry, transporting virtually all drugs and medicines from manufacturers to retailers and pharmacies. However, using certain types of pallet in the pharmaceutical supply chain can pose a serious threat to product safety

The majority of drug companies still use wooden pallets; some remaining loyal to the humble wooden pallet through tradition, others due to the cost of switching to an alternative.This trend, however, could be set to change as pharmaceutical companies become more aware of the links between product contamination and the type of pallet they are using.The issue of pallet safety started with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, who in January last year recalled 128,000 bottles of tainted Tylenol 8-hour capsules,Motrin and other over-the-counter drugs, after consumers complained of feeling sick from an unusual odour and more severe cases reporting nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In June, the speciality pharmaceutical company Depomed withdrew 52 lots of its diabetes drug, Glumetza. In November, Pfizer became the third drug company to follow suit when it recalled 191,000 bottles of its cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor.

Wood Pallet Contamination

So, what caused the problem? According to scientific tests, it was a chemical called 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), a product resulting from the breakdown of another chemical, tribromophenol (TBP), which is used in some countries by wooden pallet manufacturers both as a wood preservative and a flame retardant. Insufficiently dried wooden pallets exposed to high levels of humidity are susceptible to fungal growth, which can result in the biomethylation of TBP to TBA.To avoid fungal growth, the moisture content in wooden pallets must not exceed 13 per cent, otherwise they become the perfect breeding ground for potentially harmful bacteria. Storing wooden pallets outside in wet or humid conditions, as well as the poor ventilation in warehouses, both contribute to fungal growth. TBA is a highly volatile chemical and is most commonly detected by a mouldy, musty odour.Traces of TBA were found on the product packaging in each of the recall incidents highlighted, suggesting that the wooden pallets the products were transported and stored on were to blame for the contamination.The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) maintains that wooden pallets are a safe method for transporting pharmaceutical goods, but these three recent incidents suggest otherwise.

What happens next is down to the pharmaceutical companies. One solution could be demanding that wooden pallet manufacturers provide certification to validate that the wood is not tainted with TBA.With new pallets this is simple, as the pallet supplier needs only to request certification from the sawmill. But if the pallet is recycled or resold, it is much more difficult, as there is no way of knowing whether the wood used in its production was treated by the chemical TBP.

What is certain is that drug manufacturers will need to take action if they want to prevent such recall incidents occurring in the future. Product recalls can damage a company’s brand and reputation.They can also have a significant financial impact as a consequence of the withdrawn product and potential legal implications following customer complaints. Pfizer has reportedly promised to switch from wooden to moulded plastic pallets to solve the contamination issue (1). Over the next year, it will be interesting to see whether other drugmakers do the same.

Not Just a Pharma Problem

New data from scientific tests suggests that it’s not just the pharmaceutical industry that needs to be cautious of the hidden dangers of wooden pallets. In the US, the safety of wooden pallets for transporting food was recently questioned by consumer advocate The National Consumers League (NCL) following an examination in which wooden pallets tested positive for foodborne pathogens, including E coli, Salmonella and Listeria. In May 2010, the NCL examined 140 wooden and plastic pallets stored behind supermarkets. Approximately 33 per cent of the wooden pallets showed signs of unsanitary conditions where bacteria could easily grow and 10 per cent tested positive for E coli, which can cause food poisoning. Even more alarming is that 2.9 per cent tested positive for the potentially deadly bug Listeria, which causes 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths annually in the US. So does this spell the extinction of the humble wooden pallet, and if so, what alternatives are available?

Switch to Plastic

The invention of the pallet is a relatively recent innovation in the shipping industry, the first one appearing in the US in the early 20th century.The earliest referenced patent is Howard T Hallowell’s 1924 ‘Lift Truck Platform’, a simple skid that consisted only of stringers fastened to a top deck. During World War II, the development of the pallet really took off with the increasing need to ship goods and arms.Palletised loads could handle more goods with fewer people, freeing up men for military service.The introduction of the wooden pallet spelled a new era for the shipping industry and it wasn’t long before a standard pallet size was adopted.

Today in Europe, there are approximately half a billion pallets in circulation every year, with 45 million of those in circulation in the UK.The wooden pallet remains dominant, accounting for about 90 per cent of these pallets. Plastic pallets currently make up the other 10 per cent, but with the threat of wooden pallet contamination, plastic pallets could become the saviour in the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Hygiene First

My advice to drug companies is simple – put hygiene first and consider plastic. If you are using wooden pallets out of habit, perhaps now is the time to reevaluate your supply chain and consider a safer and more hygienic alternative, such as hygienic plastic pallets.

Of course, all plastic pallets are ‘hygienic’ when compared to traditional wooden pallets, but for transporting medicines and other pharmaceutical products, there are many advantages for using a specialised hygienic pallet.The pallet is made from the highest quality food grade virgin or recycled materials and complies with EU safety legislation. It has totally smooth, sealed surfaces, unlike wooden pallets, which are susceptible to crosscontamination issues caused by mould and dust. It can be easily cleaned manually or with an automated system, as it doesn’t absorb moisture – even under the most adverse conditions – and is tolerant of weak acids and alkalis.There are no nails, sharp edges or splinters and no risk of loose component parts breaking free under manual lifting conditions and causing injury to operatives.

If concerns over cost have been stopping you from switching from wooden pallets to plastic, it might surprise you to learn that in a normal handling and loading scenario, plastic pallets have a life span often exceeding 10 years – up to 10 times longer than a wooden pallet. Although the initial investment in plastic pallets is higher, taking into account the extended working life of plastic pallets they are an excellent investment for the future.


Pharmacists,doctors and patients rely on pharmaceutical companies to deliver products safely and free from contamination.Drug manufacturers take great care packaging products to ensure product safety and avoid external influence.However, it is also important to give the same consideration to choosing the type of pallet the products are transported on.

When selecting which type of pallet to use, there are a number of factors that pharmaceutical companies should consider and prioritise: size; load capacity; strength; handling; application; and frequency of use. By re-evaluating the use of pallets in the supply chain and putting hygiene at the top of the agenda, pharmaceutical companies will be taking a cost-effective step to prevent product contamination issues.


1. Edwards J, How the humble wooden pallet paralysed Big Pharma and now faces extinction,, November 2010

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Jim Hardisty is the founder and Managing Director of, the UK’s leading independent supplier of plastic pallets and containers. After 18 years of working in the logistics sector, and six years in the pallet industry, Jim set up in 2001 to facilitate the supply of plastic pallets to businesses in the UK. Ten years on, Jim has signed exclusive partnership agreements with a number of pallet manufacturers across Europe including IPS and SmartFlow in Belgium and Q-Pall in the Netherlands, which has allowed the company to establish a comprehensive and competitive product range.
Jim Hardisty
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