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The role of plastics in the distribution of fresh produce and meat

Most people don’t think twice about how food arrives in their local supermarket or grocery store. But there is a complex network of food distribution and strict food handling and storage standards to ensure food is stored and shipped in the right conditions and temperatures to keep it safe to sell and eat.

For obvious reasons, hygiene in food storage and distribution is critical. A failure in the distribution system could make food unsafe, especially when it comes to fresh produce like fish and meat, which can quickly go off if conditions allow.

Plastic crates, boxes, and pallets now play a vital role in food distribution. This blog looks at some of the steps in the food distribution chain to see how plastic containers and pallets help to meet hygiene standards.

The legal framework for food safety

Several key pieces of legislation underpin food safety in the UK and retained EU laws (since Brexit). These include:

  • The Food Standards Act 1999
  • The Food Safety Act 1990
  • General food law
  • Codes of Practice
  • Food Information Regulations

In addition to food and feed safety laws, all businesses must adhere to the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles (an internationally recognised system for reducing the risk of safety hazards in food).

How to store and distribute fresh and frozen produce and meat safely

High-risk foods are generally refrigerated or frozen to slow down bacterial growth and keep them safe for longer. In food distribution, the cold chain is a system that keeps frozen food and fresh food, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and biologicals in perfect condition during storage and transportation.

Foods that must be refrigerated for safety include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and all fresh, cooked perishable food. But many other temperature-sensitive food products exist, including wine and fresh fruit. Importantly, the quality of perishable foods can change rapidly, even from the slightest temperature change, which can affect shelf-life and ultimately profits.

How foods get stored and distributed is critical, even down to the crates used or the type of pallets they are shipped on. It’s not only temperature that matters. Airflow is important to some food products, and hygiene is essential.

The use of pallets and crates in food distribution, and why use plastic?

Perishable foods, fresh produce, and meats requiring refrigeration must be stored and distributed appropriately. The pallets and crates used for food storage and distribution must be well-designed, robust, of a high standard and in many cases, suitable for refrigeration. Most important of all when it comes to food is hygiene.

For this reason, during the distribution and while being stored in refrigerators or warehouses, food is commonly stacked in or on:

  • Plastic storage crates
  • Hygienic plastic pallets
  • Plastic pallet boxes

Where pallets are concerned, a fully closed design offers the most hygienic option for distributing and storing fresh produce and meat. These are smooth, closed, easy to clean and therefore very sterile. Even if a closed-deck pallet is covered in chicken or dairy, for example, they are easily cleaned as there aren’t dirt traps for liquids or residual food to be retained within.

Plastic is non-porous and robust, which makes it very easy to clean. Crates and pallets must also be strong to be put through the crate and pallet washers to meet approved hygiene standards. Industrial crate washers are incredibly powerful to ensure proteins, blood residues, food residues etc., are removed in a single wash cycle.

Containers must also be strong for handling purposes. Consider a pallet box full of potatoes as an example. The large storage container used for picking must be able to withstand knocks, which are inevitable when being mechanically handled when the potatoes are tipped out and sorted during the sorting and packaging process.

So, what about wooden pallets? Wooden pallets are still used in the food industry for packaged foods in the supply chain (where the actual food product doesn’t come into direct contact with the pallet). Plastic pallets are becoming more popular because of their resilience, cleanability and hygienic properties.

There are also drawbacks to using wood packaging and pallets when exporting goods, as ISPM15 standards stipulate the wood must be debarked, heat treated or fumigated, and stamped or branded with a mark of compliance. These standards apply to all wooden pallets and packaging regardless of what products they are carrying.

Plastic crates and boxes don’t require this process and come in all shapes and sizes ( has hundreds of different styles of plastic pallets, plastic crates, containers, and trays, for example). With such a vast array of options, it makes it easier for food producers to optimise space when shipping different products. In addition, the hygienic properties of plastic help mitigate risks to the condition of food products.

Read more about the benefits of plastic pallets within the food and drinks industry here.

Why is virgin plastic often used for crates and pallets in the food industry?

Recycled plastic is often a preferred option for many things made of plastic these days. But there is still a strong case for using virgin plastic in many food processing applications.

In production areas where the pallet or crate could come into direct contact with a food product during a process in a food factory, a food safety standard, such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC), may specify the use of a virgin grade plastic to ensure source traceability of the material and conformity to the accreditation.

Even though the plastic recycling process uses very high temperatures to convert and process plastic, there is still a consensus that the origin of plastic should be 100% traceable and safe for use throughout the food storage and distribution chain. With virgin plastic, there can be no conceivable question with food safety regarding the plastic’s origin.

Of course, once the food is packaged and doesn’t come into direct contact with the container, then crates and pallets made from recycled plastic are a realistic option. Strength is still a consideration as all containers and pallets still need to withstand handling in automated and manual applications, as well as a rigorous cleaning process. Recyclable options will also be preferable for sustainability reasons.

Also, for foods that are being refrigerated, virgin plastic is often preferred because cold temperatures can sometimes affect polymers over prolonged periods of time. Virgin plastic provides extra resistance and strength to withstand impact at freezing temperatures.

Why are pallets, crates, and boxes often blue in colour in the food industry?

Blue crates and blue pallets are used quite simply because there aren’t any blue foods (except maybe blueberries!), making it easier to notice when any pieces from damaged pallets may have contaminated any products – the same reason blue plasters are used to protect cuts for those working in catering.

Food crates do, however, come in other colours (such as green, grey, black, red and yellow), and these are often used to colour-code different types of produce. Generally, red indicates scrap food that is not fit for consumption, for example.

Are there any unique pallet and crate specifications in food distribution?

While there are standard pallet sizes, there are no set rules for pallet and crate sizes for food being distributed within the UK. However, pallets accepted across Europe are known as Euro, and there are standard pallet sizes in the UK. Euro pallets are 1200x800mm, while the standard pallet size in the UK is 1200x1000mm.

Different countries may also have set requirements. For example, in the meat industry in Germany, only one specific size and type of pallet is allowed. All pallets used in the German meat industry must be accredited and have a GS1 stamp to prove conformity.

Foods that require airflow, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, for example, are often stored and transported in vented crates. This type of crate is also used for various processes, such defrosting and washing vegetables, ensuring they can dry effectively.

Automation in the food industry is also driving changes in the size of Returnable Transit Packaging (RTP). Plastic is outrunning wooden and corrugated options as applications call for large, hygienic solutions. One example is the automated handling system for the potato industry, developed by the Belgian company Deprez, which uses ultra-large pallet boxes. provide Deprez with plastic pallet boxes that have a capacity of 1,400 litres and are made of impact-resistant, chemical-resistant and food-safe HDPE.

Generally, food distributors will be looking for the most hygienic options when it comes to choosing crates, boxes and pallets.

The importance of hygiene and temperature for fresh and frozen food storage

The importance of hygiene and temperature in food storage cannot be overstated. Food safety hazards can be found at every step of the food chain, from crop picking or at the slaughterhouse, to making it onto a supermarket shelf. Critical food safety hazards stem from:

  • Cross-contamination
  • Temperature control
  • Sanitation
  • Packaging

Impeccable hygiene practices and temperature controls minimise the potential for harmful bacterial growth and toxin formation.

Why choose offers a wide range of food-grade containers and hygienic pallets in both virgin-grade plastic and high-quality recycled plastic. We are an established provider of pallets and crates to the meat processing and distribution sector and the food and drinks industries.

Our range of plastic pallets, pallet boxes and crates will get your products from A to B, regardless of requirements. Call us on +44 (0)1323 744057 or email directly to discuss your specific application and requirements.