Over the past couple of weeks, we've learned about how important it is to keep food at the distribution level, not only cold, but also clean, because both of these easy practices can help greatly decrease the chance for food born illness, spoilage, and bacterial infection in consumers. When one particular, widely-used food distribution company was exposed last summer for violating clean AND cold storage practices, national media attention prompted discussion about food distributors responsibility to keep food not only cold and clean in storage units, but also during its delivery.
When reports came to the surface regarding suspect storage practices by a nationally operating food distribution company last summer by NBC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided it might be time to propose some new rules that would strengthen the safe transportation of food. Although many were outraged when the report highlighted improper storage practices of perishable food items, the truth is that this food distribution company wasn't the only one failing to comply with food safety standards. In fact, random inspections made to refrigerator trucks that were passing through Ohio in November of 2013 found some equally disturbing violations. For example, in one particular inspection, a truck that clearly had liquid dripping out of the rear cargo area was chosen to be inspected, perhaps not so randomly. Upon opening up the rear of the truck, inspectors were appalled to find bags of raw chicken and meat dripping onto boxes and crates of seafood, vegetables, fruits and eggs on their way to small ethnic restaurants across the state and beyond. Immediately, the Ohio Department of Agriculture ordered that all 4,000 pounds aboard the truck be destroyed.
But it doesn't end there. Not even a week later, another truck, coming from Nebraska and carrying meat through Ohio to a barbecue competition in Pittsburgh, was stopped when inspectors smelled spoiled food coming from the back of the truck. When the truck was opened, investigators found pounds of unrefrigerated, raw meat sitting in temperatures of more than 60°F. That food was also ordered to be destroyed by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
What these reports revealed, more than the fact refrigerated trucks are traveling long distances with perishable foods, despite being clearly non-operational, was that illegal refrigeration practices were happening in more places than California's unregistered food storage units, and much more frequently than could be imagined.
When these trucks were found in Ohio last year, investigators begged the question: whose job it is to thoroughly and regularly monitor refrigerated trucks? The answer might surprise and/or anger you. The investigation found that monitoring the trucks was actually nobody's job – not the Ohio Health Department, not the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and not the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. What's worse is that there is little federal oversight of these refrigerated trucks. So then whose job is it to ensure safe practices? That's a good question and one that the FDA attempted to answer with proposed changes regarding the safe transportation of food.
The FDA determined that responsibility of clean and cold storage lied equally among shippers, carriers and receivers who transport food that would be consumed or distributed in the United States. The updated regulations, that began to be discussed in April 2014, are intended to ensure that persons engaged in the transportation of food that is at the greatest risk for contamination during transport, simply follow appropriate sanitary transportation requirements.
Seems easy enough, right? Right.
The proposed rule of the FDA would help maintain the safety of food during transportation by establishing specific criteria for conditions and practices, training and record keeping, transportation operations, information exchange, transportation equipment and waivers.
Holding food distributors to higher standards in terms of food safety can only be beneficial, and perhaps, had these standards been enforced more strictly, earlier, the California distribution company that went under investigation last summer, wouldn't have been able to get away with such improper practices for so long.
Still, the question of WHY remains when it comes to compromising food safety. Why are food distribution companies willing to risk consumer health with compromised product? Unfortunately, the answer, too often, seems to be that the task of monitoring temperature, on top of adhering to sanitation standards and other compliance regulations, seems to be a daunting and expensive task for food distribution companies that are chiefly concerned with maximizing profits and increasing customer bases. It can seem an expensive and time-consuming task to manually monitor temperature at different stages of the distribution cold chain. With the proposed FDA rules; however, less wiggle room will be allowed for companies trying to cut costs on proper storage. The rules would establish requirements for the design and maintenance of vehicles and transportation equipment, ensuring adequate temperature controls, standardizing procedures for exchange of information, training in sanitary transportation practices, and maintained written procedures and records. Sure, the long list of requirements can seem overwhelming, expensive and even impossible, but the truth is that it doesn't have to be so daunting at all.
Fortunately, there are products available like Temperature@lert's Cell device that can monitor food at different parts of the cold chain, like storage and transportation, affordably, accurately, and automatically. By using the Cell device, food can always be ensured of proper storage. By using the Cell Edition during transportation, the cargo of perishable food could be monitored without wasting diesel fuel and would be able to alert the driver of a potential disaster. During the storage of food, be it at the distributor warehouse or at the retail level, the Cell Edition can be used to monitor the food temperatures before it is cooked or sold to the consumer. Using these monitoring devices is a foolproof way to collect information that can be shared with consumers, to give quantitative and qualitative assurance that the food they are about to consume is safe.
It's a simple investment choice, really, and the best way that food distributors can provide peace of mind to their customers that want to be promised that the product they are receiving is safe for sale and consumption. Is that so much to ask for? We don't think so.
Kate Hofberg, Epicurean Essayist
Temperature@lert’s resident foodie from sunny Santa Barbara, Kate Hofberg, creates weekly blog posts, manages the content database, and assists with the marketing team's projects. Balancing a love for both the west and east coast, Hofberg studied at University of California Santa Barbara, where she received a Bachelors in Communications, and Boston University, where she is currently a Masters candidate in Journalism. Before coming to Temperature@lert, Hofberg trained in her foodie ways through consumption of extremely spicy, authentic Mexican food with her three brothers and managing a popular Santa Barbara beachside restaurant. Through her training and love of great food, she brings fresh methods of cooking up content. When Hofberg is not working on Temperature@lert marketing endeavors, she serves as a weekly opinion columnist for the Boston University independent student-run newspaper, The Daily Free Press. If time permits, Hofberg enjoys long walks, reading, playing with her cat, and eating pizza. Her ideal temperature is 115°F because she loves temperatures as hot and spicy as her food.