Pharmaceutical products are the result of centuries of insights, years of rigorous research, and the incredible feats of engineering that it took to turn all that science into a reliable production line. Yet, the distribution and transportation of pharmaceuticals is its own difficult field. Pharmaceutical product transportation is one of the biggest challenges in the supply chain, and even a small snag in the process can result in a monumental loss of profit. In spite of this, most pharmaceuticals are shipped on reusable wood pallets that may have made multiple trips through the supply chain and may be contaminated with bacteria from food processing, chemicals from industrial shipments, or pesticides and fungicides from sanitization. In a worst-case scenario, this results in a hard-to-track contamination of product that requires a recall.
The platform that pharmaceuticals travel on has the potential not only to contaminate the product loaded on it, but also to spread that contamination throughout a plant or distribution center and compromise the safety standards of an entire building. Using transportation equipment that prevents cross-contamination and keeps contaminating substances from being carried into other areas should be a priority for ethical pharmaceutical companies.
Contamination in Pharmaceutical Product Transportation
The most famous, and possibly most expensive, case of contamination of pharmaceuticals is the contamination of Tylenol products with 2,4,6-Tribromoanisole (2,4,6 TBA). In 2008, consumers began reporting digestive distress after using Tylenol products. It wasn’t until late 2009 that products began to be recalled, and a total of 11 product recalls relating to a musty odor caused by the chemical followed. The incident cost Johnson & Johnson an estimated $665 million in lost sales and did irreparable damage to the company’s reputation. It was a painful fall from grace since Johnson & Johnson had previously set the gold standard in product safety in 1982 by taking swift and decisive action in response to the deliberate and malicious contamination of its products on store shelves.
The incident highlights how contaminants can enter the pharmaceutical supply chain through unanticipated means, and just how small a level of contamination is needed to render pharmaceuticals unsafe for consumers.
The source of the more recent Tylenol contamination was the pallets that the medication had been shipped on. The pallets had been made of wood treated with 2,4,6 Tribromophenol (2,4,6 TBP) and the action of microbes had transformed the chemical into 2,4,6 TBA over time and led to the contamination. TBP is banned as a wood treatment in the U.S., and the ultimate source of the contamination seems to have been treated wood from South America, which was made into pallets that then entered the U.S. supply chain through Puerto Rico.
The incident highlights how contaminants can enter the pharmaceutical supply chain through unanticipated means, and just how small a level of contamination is needed to render pharmaceuticals unsafe for consumers. It also illustrates how far the damage can spread and how hard contamination is to track down and remove from the supply chain. The obvious way to prevent such an incident is to minimize the potential vectors that can carry contaminants into and through the supply chain, and one of the biggest potential vectors—as the makers of Tylenol found out the hard way—is the wood pallet common in pharmaceutical and other supply chains.
Why Plastic Pallets Are a Safer Platform for Pharmaceutical Product Transportation
Wood pallets are abundant throughout the supply chain; an estimated 849 million wood pallets were produced in the U.S. in 2017 alone. Around 2 billion pallets are in service and of these, 43 out of 100 are recovered and reused in an effort to reduce waste. In the pharmaceutical industry, this can be an issue since there is no way to be absolutely certain where the pallets came from and no easy way to sanitize wood to make it safe. Chlorine bleach—which is the first choice for many warehouse workers cleaning up a spill—can actually degrade into another volatile compound, a precursor of 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole which is closely related to the chemical that caused the Tylenol contamination. Further complicating the problem, wood pallets also break and splinter, creating a means for contaminants to travel from loading areas into manufacturing areas or remain in freight vehicles where they can contaminate other loads.
Plastic pallets don’t share these drawbacks for one simple reason. They are non-absorbent and as a result, they can be sanitized easily if necessary and thoroughly rinsed of chemicals. Pharmaceutical supply chains that use plastic pallets can institute a hygiene program to reduce the possibility of contamination where it is required, stopping the spread of contamination before it happens. Other advantages of plastic pallets include:
- Cold Chain Compatibility: The moisture resistance of a plastic pallet isn’t just good for sanitation; it also means the pallet lasts longer and remains safe for transport when used in a cold chain. When temperatures drop, moisture condenses on surfaces and can soak into wood pallets, encouraging microorganism growth. Plastic pallets will remain water- and bacteria-resistant no matter how many trips they make through the cold chain.
- Durability: A plastic pallet is significantly stronger than a wood pallet. In operations, their strength and integrated construction prevent breaking and splintering that can damage products and does away with loose debris that can spread contaminants.
- Lighter weight: Plastic pallets are lighter than wood pallets, which allows them to be handled more easily by personnel and equipment and also saves on the energy used to transport pharmaceutical products to market.
- Dimensionally Stable: Changes in the weights and dimensions of a platform can cause a load to shift, straining equipment and potentially damaging delicate pharmaceutical products in transit. A wood pallet’s dimensions and weight change with atmospheric moisture, while a plastic pallet remains stable in weight and size.
While consumer safety is a concern for all companies, it’s an especially sensitive issue in the pharmaceutical industry, and will only become of greater concern as safety regulations are rewritten and updated. The right plastic pallet can be an ally in a world of changing regulations and may even help future-proof your business.
Future-Proofing Pharmaceutical Transportation
In 2013, prompted in part by recalls of drugs and outbreaks of foodborne illness, the U.S. Congress passed two pieces of legislation aimed at regulating food and pharmaceutical product transportation. The first was the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which empowered the FDA to regulate and enforce rules in food production and transport and came into effect in 2018. The second was the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA), meant to secure pharmaceuticals from theft, counterfeiting, contamination, and adulteration. Although the rules of the latter act have yet to be fully formulated, they suggest a heavy emphasis on tracking and reducing the means by which drugs can be altered by accident or intent.
The stable weight and consistent dimensions of plastic pallets make them the perfect partner for an automated system, where they reduce the need for human intervention.
Here, too, plastic pallets have an advantage. By their nature they reduce the risk of product damage in storage or transit, but are also more easily used in conjunction with other technologies. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) minimize the human element in the pharmaceutical supply chain, lowering the risk of accidental contamination or intentional adulteration. The stable weight and consistent dimensions of plastic pallets make them the perfect partner for an automated system, where they reduce the need for human intervention. To support tracking, high-quality plastic pallets are now available with RFID technology. Pharmaceutical transportation chains can enable this tracking by installing the necessary equipment, such as RFID scanners, which can be scaled with the production line as needed to track product being shipped. This provides one method of implementing the more precise track and trace standards that the DSCSA may eventually demand.
The need to improve safety in pharmaceutical transportation is obvious in the present and will only grow more pressing in the future. Opting for plastic pallets from a pallet pooling program allows your company to immediately upgrade the hygiene of your pharmaceutical supply chain. A pallet pooling program that offers a high-quality, technologically capable pallet makes it possible to continue improving your product transportation standards far into the future.
To improve your pharmaceutical transportation safety now and in the future with the intelligent iGPS plastic pallet, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.