‘Road scholar’ takes his message to FDA

| 4/18/2007

A lot has changed in a year’s time – and Joe Rajkovacz would agree it has been quite a ride.

A year ago, Rajkovacz had just delivered his last load of produce and was getting ready to embark on his new career as regulatory affairs specialist for OOIDA.

His 20-plus years as a produce hauler came in handy recently, when he testified before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the issue of produce safety and how it affects truckers.

“It seemed like everyone in the room had a PhD but me,” said Rajkovacz, discussing his April 13 testimony in College Park, MD. “I guess that makes me a road scholar.”
His presentation addressed potential entry points for food-borne pathogens, including the lack of regulations regarding sanitary conditions at loading and unloading facilities that produce truckers face on a daily basis. Rajkovacz also spoke on the lack of regulations to protect truckers when a load of produce has been recalled.

OOIDA Government Affairs Specialist Melissa Theriault attended the FDA hearing and said people in the room reacted strongly to his testimony when he finished speaking.

“Joe made such compelling remarks that he evoked cheers and applause from other public participants and audience members when he finished his testimony,” Theriault said. “He definitely made an impression on the room.”

She said of the estimated 150 people attending the FDA hearing, the majority of the attendees represented the agriculture industry.

OOIDA was the only organization to represent the transportation angle in the food safety debate at the FDA hearing. Since the E. coli outbreak in September 2006 the Association has been calling for mandatory federal oversight.

“I was amazed how misinformed people were about what produce truckers do – why they are an integral part in transporting the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables – but have been largely ignored from discussions concerning this issue,” Rajkovacz said.

Following his presentation, there was a question-and-answer session, which Rajkovacz said was a great opportunity for him to clear up some of the “misconceptions” the panelists have regarding produce hauling.

“One of the panelists asked a question like, ‘I hear produce haulers turn off their reefer units after picking up a load of produce to save fuel and then turn their units back on before they get ready to deliver a load,’ ” he said.

His response to the FDA panel? Not true.

“There is no way owner-operators like me can afford to do something like that. I would be financially responsible for the claim if I ‘cooked a load’ or did something like that,” he told the panel, also explaining that monitoring devices on reefer units would reveal such activity.

Another question he said the panel posed to him was why some truckers weren’t paid after the September 2006 spinach recall when some produce truckers were left “holding the bag” for potentially contaminated produce.

“I explained to them that transportation contracts don’t specifically address that a trucker necessarily gets paid when their load is recalled,” Rajkovacz said. “Someone gets paid, but oftentimes it doesn’t trickle down to the trucker.”

His oral presentation has served as a wake-up call to mainstream media, who have been calling him this week regarding his testimony to the FDA and the importance of including truckers in developing regulations that affect them.

“The produce industry has exhibited a historical lack of responsibility when dealing with the men and women charged with safely and efficiently hauling America’s fresh produce,” he said in his closing remarks to the FDA. “It is hard to imagine a solution to fresh produce safety without intervention at the highest level of government.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer