The Battle to Beat Microbial Contamination

When a well-known ice cream producer faced a microbial contamination crisis within their state-of-the-art modern facility, every aspect of the operation was scrutinized. One area of concern were porous wooden pallets that were difficult to thoroughly clean and sterilize. Baer & Associates was able to offer a unique solution tailored specifically address the pallet issue.

Baer’s Bruce Wagner met with the ice cream manufacturer and was asked if Baer could help supply a pallet that met the company’s tight specifications. Wagner replied, “Yes we can.” The client cautioned, “Don’t say that quite so quickly, others have been working on this problem for five years. We’ve been attempting to remove wooden pallets from our operations due to food safety issues for some time and we’ve never been able to get it over the finish line.”

It would be an understatement to describe the level of specificity as extremely custom within a quite narrow niche. But Wagner was up to the task, according to Bruce, “It was more of a challenge to me, because that’s the kind of thing I like to do – look for special projects where somebody says, ‘well, it can’t be done.’ You know, that’s what really motivates me.”

The Objective: A Pallet Solution that Optimizes Food Safety

The microbial food safety concern and its spread was serious and, although it could not be 100% linked to wooden pallets used to transport food it was certain that replacing the wood pallets with plastic, non-porous pallets had significant advantages. They’re easier to clean and maintain, and the risk of microbial contamination post-cleaning is practically non-existent. The challenge for Baer was the pallet solution needed to fulfill a lengthy list of requirements.

For one, the 40” x 36” pallet size required to fit the company’s machinery was unconventional. And, since the pallets were used to transport ice cream, the plastic needed to withstand temperatures of -20 degrees. To integrate with the company’s conveyor system, each pallet had to support 1,160 lbs. with no more than a 1/2 inch of deflection. The pallet also needed friction – it couldn’t slip off a towering loading crane or low-slung pallet jack. The plastic pallet also needed to meet a precision spec – and also withstand the wear and tear that the rugged, albeit porous, wooden pallets had endured within the existing product handling system.

The Strategy: Activate Relationships & Channel Expertise

Baer & Associates engaged a supply-side client with significant plastic pallet expertise. After carefully reviewing the spec, that company didn’t think they could create a pallet to suit the ice cream company’s needs – however, they did know of a supplier they believed would be of help: CABKA. The massive company is the largest producer of plastic pallets worldwide – but they had no U.S. sales team. However, after engaging with Wagner, CABKA agreed to partner with Baer to develop a solution.

Baer was 100% committed to the project as was CABKA – even so, the development process was a no small journey. Baer would need protype pallets available for testing. The prototype pallet designs would be engineered in Berlin, test samples would then be manufactured in China and then shipped to the United States where final pallet production and assembly would take place in St. Louis. The development process would take months but, thanks to worldwide collaboration from multiple players, 200 test pallets were manufactured and made available for initial testing.

Once the pallet samples were in hand, they still required much testing. Baer’s Wagner was 100% committed to the challenge, and highly invested in the outcome – so much so that he spent day after day in the ice cream company’s many plants, observing and monitoring pallet flow. Later, Bruce moved on to the ice cream company’s distribution centers to review the pallets’ performance within that environment.

The Process: Knowledge, Determination, Testing

Food safety amid concerns of microbial contamination was the driving factor in the development of this one-of-a-kind pallet solution. Baer & Associates’ Wagner had an educational background in dairy and food science and a career that included work with Dairy Farmers of America and Ecolab’s dairy division. In addition, Baer had existing relationships and years of experience in plastic pallet development. Combined with Wagner’s “never say never” approach to problem solving, a reliable and safe plastic pallet solution was well within reach for the ice cream manufacturer.

The spec was indeed complex – and the testing was rigorous. But, after meeting – and often surpassing – the specific test criteria for various attributes of the spec, Baer and CABKA together had created a pallet that would ensure food safety for the ice cream company. And, although the pallet manufacturer didn’t have any U.S. representation prior to Baer’s introduction, in the end it was Baer and CABKA that provided a solution to a five-year long existential challenge for the ice cream producer.

The Result: Extend the Solution

In addition to addressing the microbial transmittal issue possibly associated with pallets for the ice cream company, there were ancillary benefits to the new plastic pallet solution. One was sustainability. Wood was formally a go-to material for pallet construction. Wood was cheap, making it very a cost-effective product-handling and transport-management tool – especially considering that once a pallet is shipped, it typically isn’t returned. But, as the cost of wood crept up – coupled with environmental issues involving deforestation – wood pallets were becoming more and more unappealing.

Although plastic pallets were quite different than those made of wood, the reduction of health risks through their use made them appealing to many manufacturers. Baer’s Wagner had successfully solved the health problem and led the ice cream client to a more sustainable and safe solution through plastic pallets. Could other industries benefit from the plastic pallets?

Today, Baer & Associates and a trusted client are taking the pursuit of sustainability a step further – and finding a way to neutralize any cost factors that may be associated with plastic pallets. The client and Baer are exploring an economically favorable method to collect the plastic pallets and return them to the source manufacturer to be used again and again – an attractive proposition for all parties.

The development of the pallet exchange program is progressing nicely – so much so that Baer’s Wagner believes this promising solution is near complete, a solution that will help companies minimize any costs – and maximize benefits – associated with switching to plastic pallets. In fact, Bruce believes plastic pallets will be a major part of the foreseeable future for most companies that rely on pallets for product handling and product transportation management. One thing is for certain: Nothing inspires Bruce Wagner like being told something can’t be done!

If your company is interested in the knowledge and persistence Baer & Associates brings to the packaging solutions table, contact Bruce Wagner today.

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