January always seems like the right time to clean up loose ends from the previous year. I've had an itch that needed scratching ever since Pack Expo last November. I think it's a couple of news items, somewhat related, that are stuck beneath my skin.

Here's something the international crowd was talking about. Back in March 2002, in an attempt to control insect infestation on a global scale, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) established a single set of requirements and compliance standards for using solid wood packaging material -- including pallets. By my count, 118 nations signed off on the deal. Although years in the making, it took only a few months before the bickering started. The pact was put on hold in July under orders from N.A. van derGraaff, secretary, IPPC. The problem is -- get ready -- how to legally protect the "no bug" mark for use according to the standard. The official wording reads, "The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] legal office is recommending that governments temporarily suspend implementation of the standard until these legal issues are resolved."

Meanwhile, the organization is undertaking to establish a new mark. I think it's kind of hard to beat the old one. It looked like a ladybug with the international red circle and slash that virtually everyone recognizes as "NO!" The mark also indicates treatment method, location, inspection agency and pallet provider.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly issued an alert in September, saying solid wood packaging regulations for the Peoples Republic of China have not changed. If you want to try to figure out those convoluted imperatives, visit www.aphis.usda.gov and follow the links -- all the way to China. Don't get lost in the maze.

On a more positive note, two applications of antimicrobial material in transport packaging products were brought to my attention. Shuttleworth Inc., manufacturer of conveyor products, many for the food industry, now has antimicrobial compounds that can be applied to all components of its products. Carol Shuttleworth told me the material can be molded into rollers and bushings, and sprayed onto surfaces like frames and other components.

Before I had digested that news (at Pack Expo), I was talking with Samantha Goetz of Orbis. She told me her company had just signed a deal with Microban International Ltd., to mix Microban's antimicrobial protection product into Orbis' reusable containers.

"Using Microban's protection," says Deb Salemi, Orbis product manager, food handling products, "allows us to provide customers with an innovative packaging solution that has powerful antimicrobial protection."

Essentially, all these statements come with a built-in asterisk, warning that normal cleaning practices should be maintained and they do not protect the user from food-borne illness.

Before you write this off as so much marketing hype, consider what antimicrobial additives might do. The use of these additives is similar to efforts by pallet manufacturers to reduce warehouse fires with special fire-retardant compounds in their pallets. Like any insurance policy, you really don't need it until you need it.

I did a bit of research and was encouraged by what I found. First, Microban has been in the germ-whacking business for 25 years. Most of its products are used in hospital applications. Its products protect against a range of nasty, potentially harmful things, like e.coli, salmonella enteritidis, staphylococcus aureus and listeria monocytogenes. Kerchoo!

Next, since the antimicrobial compound is an additive to the plastic, put in during the manufacturing process, it's built-in protection. Microbes can't gain a foothold (assuming they have feet) in scratches in the container. The Microban polymer additive is typically incorporated in virgin resin during the extrusion process as it's blended, melted and extruded into molds. Microban will inhibit growth of stains and odor-causing bacteria, mold and mildew, an enhancement to normal cleaning practices.

From what I saw at Pack Expo, 2003 promises to be an interesting, if not cleaner, year. Excuse me. I'm going to wash my hands -- now.

Clyde Witt, executive editor, cwitt@penton.com