By Clarissa Kell-Holland
Still reeling from an E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 200 people and left three dead, the produce industry is now dealing with the aftermath of the “bad bug” publicity.
Plans to boost consumers’ confidence in the leafy green vegetable include big players like spinach growers and retailers, but appear to be excluding a key link in the food supply chain – truckers.
The Western Growers Board, a trade group that represents 3,000 farmers in California and Arizona, who ship about one-half of the nation’s fresh produce, announced in late October that it is proposing mandatory food safety standards.
That announcement came just days after some of the nation’s largest supermarket chains demanded that a six-week timeline be set to establish new safety rules to prevent future E. coli outbreaks. However, some question whether such a program can be put in place by the Dec. 15 deadline set by supermarkets such as Vons, Albertsons and Kroger grocery chains and Costco Wholesale Corp.
OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said the Western Growers’ Board is missing the point if it doesn’t bring truckers “to the table” when negotiating adequate food safety and security practices.
“Devising transportation safety and security strategies without including truckers, who will be affected by the new standards, is an insincere attempt to deal with the problem,” Rajkovacz said.
“Without the transportation industry, the produce our drivers haul could not get from the growers to the retailers. Yet, while growers and receivers have been included in this process, there is no mention of allowing truckers to have a say concerning food safety and security in relation to the products they haul.”
Rajkovacz, who hauled produce for more than 20 years before joining the Association staff in 2006, said Western Growers’ proposal is an attempt to avoid federal intervention and regulation.
“The driving force behind Western Growers’ attempt to self-regulate the spinach industry is economic self-interest, not protection of human life,” he said.
In the days that followed the outbreak, the warning to avoid eating spinach resulted in the loss of at least $100 million for growers, shippers and retailers, according to a press release issued by Western Growers.
Tim Chelling, Western Growers’ vice president of communications, said the proposed food safety practices are a “work in progress” and said the board’s goal is to havethe “most effective and highest food safety standards possible.”
“Whatever problems that truckers had in regard to the spinach and E. coli outbreak – maybe this (new safety standard) would be designed to make the product as safe as possible through the growing and processing step,” Chelling said.
Steve Lyle, a public affairs official for with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told Land Line Magazine that Western Growers’ proposal is “very preliminary” and that “many of the desires and intentions” of the plan still need to be worked out.
Lyle also said there is no plan for how the new standards will be enforced – even though, according to the Western Growers’ proposal, the CDFA would be responsible for enforcing the guidelines.
The CDFA has yet to see a formalized proposal from Western Growers, but Lyle said in November he was “looking forward to seeing the detailed plans soon.”
What needs to happen?
The voluntary recall of spinach in September exposed a missing link in the food supply chain – and exposed a gaping hole in the federal regulations regarding what to do with contaminated produce once a recall has been issued.
No one, including growers and receivers, knew what to do with the potentially contaminated produce after it had been loaded – and they still don’t. Without regulations, Rajkovacz said truckers will continue to take financial hits when food is recalled.
In the case of the recalled spinach, truckers became the dumping ground for panicked receivers who refused any and all spinach that showed up at their docks, not caring if it was part of the recall or not.
FDA officials admitted they have no authority once produce has been loaded for transportation.
“We do not extend into the trucking business – we only regulate food,” said FDA spokeswoman Cynthia Bensen.
This is a scary scenario for produce haulers, according to Rajkovacz.
“This lack of regulation from point A to point B means that no one is truly responsible for the load in transit, except the trucker who is merely the middleman,” Rajkovacz said.
Safeguards must be developed, according to OOIDA leaders, to address who should be financially liable when a recall is ordered so that truck drivers are not punished for the lack of regulations in the food supply chain.
PMA is also working with Western Growers and other produce associations to develop new mandatory food safety practices.
In October, the Produce Marketing Association issued a “Truck Transportation Best Practices for the Produce Industry” that included a section on rejected product.
However, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act is cited for conformity of any of the adopted “best practices.”
“Adopting ‘best practices’ based upon provisions of PACA protects shippers and receivers only,” Rajkovacz said. “Truckers are not a party to PACA and until produce haulers are included in the process, these ‘best practices’ are no more than putting ‘lipstick on a pig.’ Financial considerations will most certainly predominate, leaving produce truckers stuck between two forces not willing to pony up to their responsibilities.”
Half-hearted industry efforts will beg for government intervention to define who is responsible for the costs associated with the disposal of recalled, contaminated produce, Rajkovacz said.
“Truckers should not be forced to pay the costs and associated lost income for something that was contaminated before it was put on their truck and they should be compensated for their time.
Anything less leaves a gaping home in food transportation security and unfairly financially injures small business produce truckers,” he said.
Rajkovacz also said that contracts between shippers and buyers should clearly spell out shippers’ responsibilities for reimbursement so that truckers don’t take a financial loss in recall situations.
“This is necessary because any ‘self-regulation’ scheme will leave the trucker exposed to buyers and brokers who will take profit from a recall by completely denying the load or partially reimbursing costs to the trucker,” Rajkovacz said.
Is a washout enough?
Sanitation costs are another area that should be addresses in the guidelines, Rajkovacz said. Unless something is specified, these costs could be passed on to the truckers, instead of where the costs need to be placed – on the shippers in a recall situation.
“The contamination issue is another area of concern for our produce haulers and is one that needs to be addressed,” he said. “They shouldn’t be held financially responsible for what could be a potentially expensive process of getting rid of a deadly contagion like E. coli once their trailer has been contaminated.”
In many cases a standard washout just isn’t going to kill deadly bacteria such as E. coli. However, no regulations currently exist regarding cleaning procedures for trailers that have been potentially contaminated.
Blue Beacon is one of the largest truck-washing operations in the U.S. While it offers hot-water trailer washouts, Ron Kramer, Blue Beacon safety director, said his company doesn’t offer bleach washouts for trailers. And, he said, he has directed the general managers at all Blue Beacon locations not to touch a trailer that has been sprayed down with bleach.
“We don’t want to expose our people to that kind of hazard,” Kramer said. “We don’t offer disinfecting services – we never claim that our washouts are going to disinfect your trailer. We’re going to wash the dirt out of it. We always use soap and hot water on the insides of the trailer, but we don’t use any disinfecting solution, per se, that is manufactured to be a germ-killer.”
Of the 10 or more organized truck washing companies across the country, not one offers bleach trailer wash-out services, and Kramer said he doesn’t know of any independent truck-washing facilities that do offer trailer washouts using a bleach solution.
“Right now, there is minimal infrastructure available to truckers to clean out a trailer and no availability for meaningful decontamination,” Rajkovacz said.