Produce haulers still need a place at the table

| 8/17/2007

Before last fall’s spinach E. coli outbreak left 200 people ill and three dead, spinach was seen by many as the perfect food – high in vitamins and nutritional value – and also a steady source of income for produce haulers who depend on the high demand for leafy greens grown in the Salinas Valley.

With the anniversary of the Sept. 14, 2006, E. coli outbreak looming less than a month away, it seems that everyone in the food safety debate is still scrambling to find answers to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again.

Trevor Suslow, microbial food safety specialist at the University of California-Davis, said he agrees truckers should be included in food safety discussions because of their important role in getting the product “from farm to fork.”

Suslow is serving on the advisory board for the new Center for Produce Safety, located on the UC campus at Davis. The new center was established by the produce industry in response to last year’s E. coli outbreak. Suslow said transportation, distribution and logistics will be part of his extension research.

“I have always recognized the importance of including transportation if there is really going to be a complete food safety program from seed to shelf or from farm to fork, as they say,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know of any association or national advocacy group that is currently looking out for the interests of people hauling fresh produce or any other perishable or potentially hazardous foods and really participating in the development of all of this.”

Stepping into the void, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has issued comments with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and has testified before the FDA on behalf of its members who were left “holding the bag” when they had contaminated bagged spinach on their trailers and didn’t know where to take it or what to do with it.

Some receivers refused to accept the contaminated product, some weren’t paid for the pallets of spinach and others weren’t reimbursed for their dumping or tipping fees associated with finding a landfill or dump to dispose of the product.

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz, who hauled produce out of the Salinas Valley for more than 20 years, said the time is ripe for OOIDA to step in and help develop a fair and workable food safety plan that represents truckers as being an integral part in the food supply chain.

Many truckers were left holding the bag literally and financially after the outbreak and, for the most part, are still being left out of discussions on ways to make improvements in the food supply chain, Rajkovacz said.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer