There is a huge and ongoing fight for the container market for fruits and vegetables, reports Ann Hui of the Globe and Mail.
The cardboard and plastic manufacturers have both lined up experts to defend their products.
But the plastic side is on the defensive after food safety experts have prepared reports saying they pose a risk.
Farmers are caught in the middle, trying hard not to offend retailers who favour one over the other.
Keith Warriner, a University of Guelph professor, released a study late last month that raises concerns about the hygiene of boxes made out of plastic, reports Hui.
Until the past decade, cardboard led, but five years ago Loblaws Cos. asked its suppliers to use plastic because they can be reused.
“Each year, by using these reusable crates, we keep millions of wax-corrugate boxes out of landfill,” Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas told Hui.
In 2013, the Canadian Corrugated Containerboard Association funded Dr. Warriner to study the plastic crates.
His second study in 2014 found crates were being managed with “unacceptable sanitary standards,” and the plastic industry vowed to make improvements.
IFCO, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of recycled crates, opened a location in Guelph so that the crates would no longer have to travel to the United States for cleaning.
But in his study released last month, Dr. Warriner again found cause for concern.
Using a pass or fail measure, he found a majority of samples (between 83 per cent and 100 per cent of 144 units tested) failed based on total aerobic count, which indicates the presence of bacteria.
In four per cent of the random samples taken, tests showed the presence of E. coli. He also raised caution about the possibility of plant pathogens transmitting from one region to another.
Warriner said that despite improvements, “the method they have for sanitizing the crates is ineffective.”
An IFCO spokesperson said it has spent more than $125-million over the past five years improving its sanitation procedures, and added that the company’s crates have never led to any incidents of food-borne illness.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told Hui she is unaware of any food-safety incidents related to the plastic crates.
And Loblaws said the company has also worked closely with manufacturers to improve sanitation, including new wash stations.
The plastic industry hired Franklin Associates whose study found that plastic containers generate 31 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions and 85 per cent less solid waste than cardboard.