More questions than answers for truckers a year after E.coli outbreak

| 9/14/2007

One year ago – on Sept. 14, 2006 – OOIDA member G.W. Monday was hauling pallets of bagged spinach on his truck when his load was rejected by a Kroger grocery store in Atlanta after a voluntary recall was issued because of an E.coli outbreak.

Outraged by Kroger officials’ refusal to accept the potentially contaminated product that they had ordered, Monday was stuck with the pallets on his truck, and called to ask the important question that Land Line Magazine and OOIDA are still asking one year later, “What’s a produce hauler to do?”

Monday eventually drove to a landfill in Atlanta and paid someone to dump the cases of bagged spinach because he had to head to his next destination. One year later Monday is still asking that same question. He said his goal is to make sure truckers aren’t left “holding the bag” again when a voluntary recall is issued and truckers have potentially contaminated product on their trailers.

“The government has to step in and do something – that’s the only way anything is going to get done here,” Monday told Land Line on Friday.

“When there is a recall on any kind of product, there have to be some regulations in place so the shippers and receivers work together and don’t put truckers in the middle. We’ve got enough burdens put on us in this industry as it is – everyone seems to think that the loads belong to us and that we should keep them if there’s a problem, but the loads don’t belong to us, we are just hauling them where they need to go.”

Currently, Monday has five trucks hauling mixed loads of spinach out of the Salinas Valley every week. He said he hasn’t had any problems with product being rejected at receivers since last year’s outbreak, but said if regulations are not put in place to protect truck drivers soon – something like what happened to him last year is going to happen again.

“We need to get some food safety regulations in place out here,” he said. “Someday, I’m going to retire and get out of the trucking business, but I want to know I’ve done something good so that my sons and grandsons aren’t stuck in the middle when – or if – something like this happens again.”

Following last year’s recall of E.coli tainted bagged spinach processed by Natural Selections Foods’ San Juan Bautista plant, Monday said he has been talking to fellow truckers as well as brokers about what happened to him and about what he thinks needs to happen in order to protect produce haulers from having something like this happen to them.

“Brokers, they don’t want to get involved in this fight,” Monday said. “They can’t afford to get involved in this – they get paid either way.”

More questions than answers
A year after more than 200 people were sickened and three people died after eating tainted bagged spinach, the debate continues to rage about how to prevent future foodborne illness outbreaks.

Right now, there is little agreement among the participants in the food supply chain as to how best to prevent future contamination issues linked to produce. The produce industry’s answer to last fall’s E.coli outbreak was to develop a voluntary Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement, designed to restore consumers’ confidence in eating leafy greens again and also to improve sanitation and testing procedures of leafy greens.

Since the initial outbreak, another recall in bagged spinach – this time because of possible salmonella contamination – was issued in late August after Metz Fresh spinach tested positive for the bacteria after the product was in transit.

And while Metz Fresh spokesman Greg Larsen said communication with the truckers hauling the product was key in the containment of more than 90 percent of the more than 8,100 cases of bagged spinach, he said he isn’t sure exactly what that communication was. There was no direct contact between the company and the truckers – they called their direct customers, who then called the truckers, who were in transit with the potentially contaminated product.

Both Natural Selections and Metz Fresh are signatories to the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement.

Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA’s regulatory affairs specialist, has testified before the FDA on the issues produce haulers face every day out on the road and the lack of procedures for truck drivers to follow when a problem is found with a load on their trailer.

“A year after the massive recall, the produce industry is still trying to dictate the rules, without inclusion of all the food supply chain participants,” he said. “That makes a mockery out of the industry’s statements concerning food safety.”

Rajkovacz said the industry will continue to make truckers their dumping ground for contaminated product unless a mandatory recall system is developed to prevent this from happening.

“OOIDA intends to vigorously work on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to expose the conditions produce truckers face every day and to help create a meaningful mandatory recall systems that protects the rights of truckers.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer