FDA vs. wooden onion crates

by Walter Olson on August 14, 2014

We’ve warned many times that the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 is sure to drive up food prices, make life hard for small farmers, and encourage the substitution of industrial farm methods for the traditional and local. Now the FDA is rumbling that wooden onion crates may need to give way to plastic, although defenders say wooden crates have a good safety record in actual use. “Replacing a million wooden crates would cost about $200 million. … plastic crates can only hold about half the weight of wooden ones and they cost nearly three times as much.” [Economics 21]

In June, after an outcry, the FDA backed off hints that it would end the age-old practice of aging cheese on wooden boards.

P.S. Interesting discussion in comments on whether the cited cost figures are plausible. One thing I like about Overlawyered readers is that they know so much about onion crates.

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Today’s Reading – 8/14/2014 | Finance and Physics
08.14.14 at 11:36 am


1 cgage 08.14.14 at 6:06 am

I call arithmetic. 1 million crates cost $200 million? Granted that $200 doesn’t buy what it once did, but an onion crate? Really?

2 eyedoc 08.14.14 at 7:32 am

Well, it does say the plastic crates only hold half as much as wooden crates so you need to replace 1 million wooden ones with two million plastic ones. They cost three times as much, and I’d imagine shipping two million crates isn’t cheap, so the math doesn’t seem impossible, but the point is what’s the FDA’s dictum based on? Is it based on real science that says wooden crates significantly increase food borne illnesses to the point that the significant expense is justified or not?

3 cgage 08.14.14 at 8:56 am

Sorry, $100 each for 2 million mass produced plastic boxes doesn’t pass the laugh test, and I have a hard time believing that a wooden crate costs a third of that. A site which bills itself as providing economic insight should know better than to cite costs like that without supporting the claim, especially when those costs appear so absurd on their face.

More to eyedoc’s point, however, if wooden surfaces significantly increase food borne illnesses, (not so, according a professor quoted in the article) then the FDA backing off on its proposed ban on using wooden surfaces in cheese production similarly increases food borne illnesses and all cheese eaters are in mortal danger!

Both the pro and anti regulation sides of this argument appear to be pushing absurdly inflated claims.

4 Don Miller 08.14.14 at 10:12 am

I live in one of the largest onion producing areas in the country.

Wooden Onion crates are extremely common here. I don’t think I have ever seen a plastic one.

I recently had to fight a fire involving almost 2,000 of them in one pile. We had flames 50′ high coming off the pile.

So here is my question, what do you do with all the old ones? They have a surprising number of nails and reinforcing brackets in them.

They are large too. 4′x4′x3′ They move really well with forklifts. Smaller ones will require more trips with a forklift to move the same quantity of onions. That will result in higher handling costs.

The onions are only kept in the crates for a few months while they await processing.

The only place I have seen plastic ones was in a onion ring plant.

5 wfjag 08.14.14 at 10:38 am

So much for use of green resources and recyclable materials. However, on the plus side, when the pipeline from the Canadian Sand Tars is built to the Pacific Coast and the heavy oils are shipped to China for refining and use in manufacturing, the US will have created a new market for those materials.

6 No Name Guy 08.14.14 at 11:36 am

From Don’s description, the onion crates sound a lot like the apple “crates” that are quite common in Eastern Washington. They’re stacked in huge piles on the off season, although they’ll be filling quickly as the apple harvest gets under way.

If the onion crates are anything like the apple ones, then I can believe the $200 price tag. Lets do some rough math: 4x4x3 feet. Assume it’s a square, with 3 feet being the height. OK…..just on the plywood for the sides, that’s at least 2 1/2 sheets. Cheap, thin OSB is at a minimum of $9 / sheet, and I suspect they’re made of something a little more robust than cheap, thin OSB. Add some 4×4 for skids ($9 / 8 feet), then add some corner posts, etc I could see there being at least $50 or more of raw lumber and other material per crate. Add in labor to nail it all together, painting / finishing, brackets as Don indicates, perhaps a cover to keep rain out, overhead in the manufacturing process, shipping, disposal cost of the current crates, etc – yeah, I could see it being upwards of $200 per crate. So there’s your numbers cgage – just passed your “laugh” test. Don’t like my numbers – please, add it up yourself.

Oh, and go shop for the rubbermaid type plastic storage bins, before you laugh at $100 / each for something big and robust enough to handle a load of onions and be mechanically handled. Again, pricing at Lowes, I see the el cheapo crap 18 gallon bins for $9 / each. The “brute” 20 gallon tubs are $25 / each. I doubt the “brute” totes are anything close to what would be needed in an industrial farming situation, so I could see 4x to 8x the price being in the ballpark.

So there….did your sanity checking for you.

Note: Lumber prices looked up on the Lowes website for a Seattle store. Ditto the totes.

7 Don Miller 08.14.14 at 6:59 pm

Onion Crates are similar in size to apple crates, but are made out of 1×4 slats to allow for ventilation. One thing suggested in the article, I forgot about was the ventilation of the onion sheds. The sheds would have to be redesigned to allow proper ventilation of the onions in plastic crates.

Here is a picture of a stack of onion crates I took. The rest of the stack is on fire. We are trying to salvage part of it.

8 Mannie 08.15.14 at 7:15 am

Regarding the arithmetic fight, here are some ground-truthing points, from the Uline catalog http://www.uline.com

Wood pallets, 48 x 48″ Heat Treated export grade, $23.50 in lots of 20+
Standard Plywood crates, 48″ x 48″, $213.00 in lots of 10+
Heavy duty wood crates, 48″ x 48″ $437 in lots of 5+
Collapsible plastic crates, food grade, 48 x 40 x 39″ $375.00 in lots of 5+

So $100 a crate does pass the smell test. These aren’t the little peach boxes you get at the Farmer’s Market.

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