By Clarissa Kell-Holland
Produce hauler Bill Lawlor knew nothing about a voluntary recall on Sept. 15 as he pulled up to the docks at a Giant Food Store in Carlisle, PA, to unload eight to 10 pallets of spinach he hauled from Dole Foods in Springfield, OH.
“A lumper had already started to unload my truck, then the supervisor saw the product they were unloading was spinach, and they immediately started putting it back on my truck,” said Lawlor, an OOIDA member from Plains, PA. That’s when he learned about the recall.
Lawlor said another driver from the same company he drives for was at the same dock trying to unload spinach at the same time. That trucker was also left holding the bag, so to speak.
After talking with someone from their company, Lawlor said he agreed to put his and the other driver’s pallets of spinach back onto his truck so the other driver could get back on the road and pick up another load.
But then Lawlor had to figure out what to do with the recalled vegetation.
He called the nearest county dump while waiting to hear back from his boss. The people at the Cumberland County Dump agreed to take the more than 1,000 cases of spinach, which he unloaded by hand.
Lawlor paid dumping costs of $109 up front and his company reimbursed him for the out-of-pocket expense. However, as of press time, the shipper, Dole Foods, had not yet reimbursed the trucking company for disposing of the spinach.
On that same day, OOIDA member G.W. Monday was hauling pallets of the recalled spinach on his truck when his load was rejected by a Kroger grocery store in Atlanta.
Monday said he initially thought of selling his load of spinach to a farmer to use as feedstock for his cattle, but then he said he realized the produce could possibly contain bacteria and could be harmful if ingested. So, he decided to drive to a local landfill in Atlanta instead.
At the landfill, he was told he would have to wait for a permit before dumping his recalled load.
“No one could tell me when that would be, so I waited as long as I could, but I had to get back out there (on the road),” Monday said.
So, he unloaded the cases of spinach onto a pickup truck and paid a local man to wait for the permit and then dump the recalled spinach.
The recent E. coli outbreak left many truck drivers and OOIDA members across the country holding the bag and wondering what to do with the potentially tainted produce once the product was recalled and subsequently rejected by receivers.
In the days following the initial spinach recall in mid-September, Land Line Magazine received calls from OOIDA members who were left high and dry by the shippers and produce companies they were hauling for.
Once the product was recalled, no one, including shippers and receivers, seemed to want anything to do with it and, in a sense, turned their backs on the truckers, dumping the problem back on them.
This “not our problem” attitude left many produce haulers scrambling to find answers as to what guidelines exist on who owns such a load and who is responsible for disposing of potentially contaminated produce that was put back on their trailers.
OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz was an owner-operator who hauled produce for more than 20 years before joining the Association staff in 2006. He said the not-our-problem answer is common practice for receivers who don’t want product. They just dump it back on the truckers.
“The decision should definitely not fall back on the trucker to decide what to do with a potentially deadly form of bacteria that is in the produce he happens to be hauling,” said Rajkovacz.
“However, oftentimes, this is what happens. Someone – say a receiver – doesn’t want the product and thinks there is a quality problem or, in this instance, the product has been recalled, who do you think they are going to dump it on? The trucker, of course, takes the hit.”
Rajkovacz said the Food and Drug Administration, which governs the food and produce industry, has no clear regulations in place on disposal procedures for contaminated product that has been voluntarily recalled. He said FDA relies on the “honor system” for companies to report incidents of contamination out of fear of bad publicity or litigation.
Food safety in the fresh produce industry is, apparently, largely a matter of self-regulation.
The FDA and state health department officials can inspect only processing plants and don’t venture onto farms unless there’s an outbreak, according to a written statement by Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, when she testified before the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform in March 2004.
“The FDA doesn’t have the power to order recalls, though it can seize food before it has gone to retailers if a producer doesn’t agree to one. At FDA, lettuce and other fresh vegetables and fruits are essentially unregulated for safety. While FDA published guidelines for farmers, these guidelines are legally unenforceable.
“No federal agency today is responsible for overseeing food safety at the production level … the agency has no authority when it comes to human infections that originate in life animals or plants.”
In the U.S., at least 10 federal agencies have jurisdiction over some aspect of food-safety regulation, DeWaal said. Besides the FDA, the primary ones dealing with food safety issues include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control.
“That highly fragmented system divides regulatory responsibility based on food products,” she wrote in the CSPI’s “Outbreak Alert 2005” report.
“Food-borne illness outbreaks are primarily investigated by state and local health departments. But many, perhaps most, outbreaks fall through the cracks because the states are not required by law to report food-borne illness outbreaks to the CDC.”
Missing the point
Mainstream media focused on the financial implications affecting the produce industry because of the E. coli outbreak. However, how this outbreak has affected produce-hauling truckers has been one angle that has been largely overlooked.
Just after the spinach scare, a voluntary recall on lettuce was issued by the Nunes Co. in Salinas, CA, in early October after the company learned that irrigation water may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
In the case of the recalled lettuce and what produce haulers were supposed to do with the recalled product, Tom Nunes Jr., company president, said the company was dealing with each situation on a “one-by-one” basis, and that it was OK to dispose of the potentially E. coli-contaminated lettuce in landfills.
“We are talking about a few cartons here and there – E. coli is found everywhere, so it’s OK in this instance,” he said just before press time. “We don’t even know if they contain the E. coli bacteria – we are still conducting testing.”
Waste Management Inc. of Houston is one of the largest waste management companies in the U.S., and company spokeswoman
Liz Johnson told Land Line they have no written policy regarding the disposal of potentially contaminated produce at their landfills. She also said she was unaware if federal regulations exist regarding this issue.
“If there’s a regulation, that could vary state-by-state,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any idea what regulations would be state-by-state. I can only speak to what we do.”
Randy Gunderman, who has been involved in produce transportation for more than 25 years and is currently manager of RTS Credit Services in Lenexa, KS, had an even more pointed comment, hitting the epicenter of the crisis.
“Unfortunately, many of the laws we need to govern produce hauling haven’t been written yet,” he said.
OOIDA’s Rajkovacz agreed.
“Meanwhile, truckers are not only left hung out to dry when it comes to deciding what to do with a potentially contaminated load, they are usually responsible for disposing of it safely,” said Rajkovacz.
He also pointed out that the recent E. coli outbreak posed another scary question that is not getting much attention from authorities, the produce shipping industry or the media.
“After the stuff is off your truck, what do you do when your trailer may be crawling with deadly and totally invisible bacteria?” Rajkovacz said.
“Getting squeaky clean again so you can go on down the road and pick up a load of baby food is not that easy. A cold water wash-out doesn’t get the job done. Truckers are left holding the bag on that dilemma as well.”
Cross-contamination of produce that may contain the deadly E. coli bacteria is another alarming issue largely overlooked by mainstream media. Most produce haulers have more than one product on their trailers. Only the large companies, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, have the volume to order in truckload quantities, Rajkovacz said.
“I rarely had a full load of one product when I was hauling produce,” he said. “I would have pallets of raw spinach stacked to the top right next to several pallets of onions. If the spinach on my trailer would have contained this deadly E. coli bacteria, you can bet the contaminated water from the spinach would have gotten on some of the other produce in my trailer. There’s just no way around it.”
A joint study by the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Western Growers and the International Fresh-cut Product Association recommended steps be taken to “establish restrictions on previous cargoes to avoid the possibility of cross contamination.”
However, the April 2006 report – titled “Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Lettuce and Leafy Greens Supply Chain” – fails to address what steps should be followed when a contamination involves a deadly bacteria such as E. coli.
The commodity study goes on to say the FDA is developing regulations for shippers, motor carriers and rail carriers, receivers and others engaged in the transportation of food to “use sanitary transportation practices,” however, none exist at this time and none relate to contaminants such as E. coli.
“In layman’s terms, the proposed regs only apply to the overall condition of the trailer, which is largely based on a visual inspection to see if the trailer is free of debris, has no odors and is cooling properly,” Rajkovacz said.
“Unfortunately, nothing exists as far as proper cleaning of a trailer once a produce hauler has had something like this potentially contaminated spinach on their trucks. I am sure many just simply dumped the recalled pallets of spinach they were hauling and continued on with their remaining load of produce, which may have been cross-contaminated with E. coli.
“Without proper cleaning guidelines for what truckers should do after hauling a contaminant such as this deadly bacteria, truckers may unknowingly contaminate future products they haul on their trailers.
Food safety nightmare: Answers still elude authorities
Investigators confirmed Oct. 12 that the same E. coli bacteria strain linked to the recent recall of spinach matched the same deadly strain found in samples of cattle feces from a Salinas Valley, CA, cattle ranch within a mile of spinach fields. But that only answers part of how the produce was contaminated.
Three other cattle ranches in the area have also been identified in the investigation and are undergoing tests to see if cattle feces there also contain the same deadly E. coli strain that killed three people and sickened 199 people in 26 states.
As of press time, officials still couldn’t be sure if the E. coli found in the cow manure contaminated the spinach fields, according to The Associated Press. However, samples taken from sick patients matched the E. coli strain found in specific bags of recalled spinach. Not all bagged spinach that was recalled contained the deadly
E. coli bacteria.
On Sept. 15, after consulting with the FDA and the California Department of Health Services, Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, CA, voluntarily recalled all of the spinach products packed in all of their facilities, which are sold under multiple brand names, including Earthbound Farm
“We do not have a smoking cow at this point,” said veterinarian Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the Prevention Services Division of the California Department of Health Services, to The AP on Oct. 13. “We do not have a definite cause and effect, but we do have an important finding.”