Whistleblowers in food transportation watchdog the process in an otherwise overlooked area in the food supply chain. Issues involving food integrity in transportation range from inadequate refrigeration in trucks to intentional acts of bioterrorism.
Trucking is the most popular method of transporting food in the United States. One study found that food that reached a terminal market in Chicago had travelled over 1500 miles from the place it was grown. This is not surprising when you consider the path food takes to reach its checkpoints. First, food product travels from the farm to the processor. From there, the food will be sent to a distributor and stored in a warehouse. The food is then sent to a retail establishment, where consumers finally purchase it. At all points on its long journey, the likelihood and opportunity for contamination increases.
In order to keep foodborne pathogens from developing and proliferating, food transporters must take great care in maintaining proper food temperature and hygiene. Additionally, food products should spend minimal amounts of time exposed to temperature changes. This requires that food spend the least amount of time possible on loading docks. Lastly, trucks must be kept clean between hauls to avoid possible cross-contamination of food products. Sanitization is especially important when carrying mixed food types and when alternating between meat and produce hauls.
In tough economic times, cutting on transportation costs is a convenient place to save money. One common cutback is fuel. To reduce fuel use in trucks, transporters may raise the thermostat of the refrigeration unit. As a result, the proper cooling temperature will not be reached and pathogenic growth will increase. Another example of fuel saving may be to combining mixed loads. Instead of sending half full trucks on the road, processors may mix meats and produce, which can result in improper refrigeration and cross-contamination.
The increasing prevalence of imported food products presents new food safety challenges. The average American can walk into almost any grocery store and find bananas from Costa Rica, pastas from Italy, and spices from India. But this growing access to global food comes with new threats.
The FDA, with the exception of meat and poultry, is the federal agency responsible for overseeing U.S. food imports. That agency faces considerable challenges regulating foreign foods. Unfortunately, the food safety values and standards of America’s trade partners are not equal. China, a major food exporter to the United States, has been under considerable scrutiny for its questionable quality of goods. Over a four month period in 2007, the FDA refused Chinese food imports 298 times. FDA officials’ reasons for denying the shipments included dangerous levels of antibiotics in fish, the presence of banned fertilizer on produce, apples preserved with carcinogenic chemicals, and countless products labeled “unfit for human consumption.”
Distribution is a critical part of the supply chain and warehouses are critical to distribution of food across the United States. Warehouses are sometimes referred to as “transportation at zero miles per hour” – they are where products are stored before transport. There are roughly 15,000 companies running thousands of warehouses and fleets of trucks across the country. Given the potential for mass contamination, it is necessary to practice the utmost care in protecting warehouses from accidental food adulteration, such as contamination from improper food storage, or intentional adulteration, such as bioterrorism.
Warehouses give rise to a multitude of potential food safety problems. Poor temperature control, improper rotation of perishable products, and infrequent inspection can result in negative food safety consequences. Many products are “cold chain” – those that require constant low temperatures and are very difficult and costly to maintain because of temperature restrictions.
Distribution centers are located throughout the United States and act as hubs that supply warehouses, chain restaurants, grocery stores and other smaller distribution centers throughout a region. The distribution centers are central to moving foods throughout the country. These facilities can be enormous operations. The Hunts Point Cooperative Food Distribution Center, the world’s largest, is located in New York City sitting on 330 acres in the Bronx. A small city in itself, the Center employs about 25,000 workers.
GAP has heard from workers at distribution centers who witness unsavory and improper handling everyday, but many of these employees without union contracts or sufficient whistleblower rights are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. In warehouses, it’s common to see pallets of food exposed to any number of adulterants. Common contaminants include rat hair and feces, rust, paint chips, glass, decomposing material, and sand.