When it comes to the prepared food a commissary ships out, it’s not only the packaging directly holding it that should raise concerns about food safety and foodborne illness, but also the packaging that ships the bulk of the product to its end retailer.

Most commissaries consider it a choice between either using reusable plastic containers (RPCs) or single-use corrugated packaging, also known as cardboard. This month, Commissary Insider is digging into cardboard’s side of the issue. Be sure to follow up next month, when we’ll be exploring what purveyors of RPCs have to say about it.


While the reusable aspect of plastic containers sounds more efficient and sustainable, cardboard is cheaper, and a study done in February by NSF International (and sponsored by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance) says cardboard is actually more likely to be the most sanitary.

The study concluded that the typical manufacturing process of cardboard brings it to a sufficient temperature (180 - 200°) over an ample amount of time (nine seconds) to destroy the bacteria of common food pathogens. So much so, in fact, that if the manufacturing process was required to, it could meet the EPA’s requirements for sanitization.

“EPA has established criteria for the approval of chemical sanitizers,” says Maryann Sanders, the director of the NSF study, and senior regulatory specialist and microbiologist at Haley & Aldrich Inc. “To be classified as a sanitizer, a chemical product must result in a 99.999% reduction in microorganisms.”

So though the EPA has never required the test, cardboard has already essentially passed it. The packaging was contaminated with multiple thermotolerant pathogens in the study, including E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, and after being heated, showed the number of organisms present decreased by 100,000-fold on the liner surface.

“Finished product and field testing of the containers has shown that when delivered to customers, they are clean and meet acceptance criteria for food contact applications,” Sanders says of the testing. “Based on similar field testing with reusable plastic containers, the best choice to mitigate potential microbial contamination for food contact would be single-use corrugated containers.”


This is largely because RPCs rely on people to sanitize them between uses, the study concludes. The making and remaking of cardboard, however, is automated, and since every box is only used once before being recycled and reformed into a new one, they always reach proper temperatures for sanitation. 

“I am concerned,” Sanders says, “because right now there are no standardized procedures for the cleaning and sanitation processes (of RPCs) that are publicly benchmarked. We’ve seen a failure rate that can exceed up to 50 percent in some RPCs that even just show physical gross contamination.”

It bears noting that most RPCs passed their inspections during the testing, but what was really concerning to Sanders about the results is that you never knew which container would be contaminated and which wouldn’t.

“It seems, based on the test results, that the sanitation processes used by the facilities are insufficient and are variable,” she says. “We would find some RPCs that were very clean, and others that had very high levels — up to a million organisms per sample.”

Rachel Kenyon, a representative of the CPA and vice president of the Fibre Box Association, also acknowledges the safety of RPCs so far — no illnesses have been traced back to the containers as of yet, she says. Yet Kenyon still preaches caution, quoting Sanders herself from another interview: “In a recent article in Food Safety News,” Kenyon says, “Sanders said, ‘If I were a retailer or a supplier, I wouldn’t want to be the first one to have a documented problem (with RPCs),’ and I agree.”

Improper cleaning is a food safety concern, but it’s also a monetary concern when it comes to spoilage subtracting from your bottom line. And according to a 2015 study done by the FBA, total packaging, shipping and handling costs for a company using cardboard are 10.4 percent lower than when using reusable plastic. As for sustainability, RPCs may not require trees to be cut down for production, but cardboard is recycled on average about 90 percent of the time.

“Corrugated packaging is a low-cost, high-performance packaging material that offers product protection, insulating characteristics, graphic appeal and sustainability,” Kenyon sums up. “It’s made from a renewable resource, trees, and manufactured using bio-fuels and recycled fiber. The average corrugated box contains nearly 50 percent recycled content, and the recycling rate for old corrugated containers reached a record high of 92.9 percent in 2015.”