By Dennis Colley
President, Fibre Box Association
Executive Director, Corrugated Packaging Alliance
The safety of our food supply is under intense scrutiny and arguably the number-one issue of concern to growers, shippers, foodservice providers, restauranteurs and retailers in this country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost half a million deaths worldwide are attributed to foodborne pathogens each year. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick and 3,000 die every year from illnesses transmitted in the food they eat.
Preventing the outbreak of disease is an essential responsibility for food producers, servers and retailers. Often, the infections are traced back to contaminated protein products or fresh produce. Growers and shippers are on the front lines of a life-and-death battle to assure the safety of their products.
Contaminants originating in the field or packing sheds give the farming industry plenty of trouble. Proper hygiene for workers and careful application of compost materials, among other measures, are critical, and farmers face increasing requirements to document safe practices. The last thing they need to worry about is what happens to the food they produce after it leaves the farm!
Packaging is another link in the chain that must be considered, to prevent the spread of disease. Most fresh produce is packed and shipped in corrugated boxes. Corrugated manufacturers, recognizing the enormity of concern, decided to test their products for cleanliness.
The research confirmed that the corrugated manufacturing process is sufficient to destroy common food pathogens, effectively meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) requirements for chemical sanitizers. That means that even boxes made with recycled content are sanitary, because their fibers are repulped and reprocessed through the corrugation process.
The laboratory study, conducted by NSF International under the direction of Maryann Sanders, senior regulatory specialist and microbiologist at Haley & Aldrich, Inc. and sponsored by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA), evaluated both temperature and time to determine if typical corrugated manufacturing processes, which combine a fluted or arched layer of paper sandwiched between two smooth layers, were sufficient for sanitization.
The study employed a temperature and time profile representative of manufacturing practices where linerboard reaches temperatures of 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately nine seconds. Under these conditions, linerboard contaminated with a cocktail of various thermotolerant organisms, including both E. coli and Salmonella spp., reached the specified temperature for the identified time resulting in a five-log reduction in organisms present on the liner surface, effectively meeting the EPA’s defined requirement for sanitization.
This research confirms that the process used to manufacture corrugated containers uses sufficient temperatures and dwell time to kill microbes. Clean boxes have been consistently verified at box plants and at customer locations.
This study is the latest in a line of both field and laboratory-based research studies performed over the past several years demonstrating the cleanliness of single-use corrugated packaging. A study conducted from 2010 to 2014 showed that more than 400 microbiological test results collected from 40 paper and box facilities all met acceptable standards for clean packaging. Another study released in February 2015 revealed that 100 percent of corrugated boxes from six different box suppliers tested at six different customer locations in three different U.S. regions met standards for clean packaging.
The safety of corrugated packaging for shipping food products is now certain.