Driving for Food Safety

Shipping food items from fields to processing centers or from manufacturing plants to supermarkets is a complicated, highly integrated process. Is it safe?

That was a key question behind a major component of the Food Safety Modernization Act: how to insure the safe and sanitary transportation of food to prevent food contamination and costly recalls.

The FSMA provisions regulating this activity have now taken effect, but there’s a hitch. As of this writing, the Food and Drg Administration (FDA) has not issued its promised training guides for shippers and drivers. That’s left transport companies to improvise; some are adapting food safe shipping strategies by private companies and universities, while others are relying upon previous food safety methods and a healthy dose of common sense.

A brief background: transporters of human and animal food products are required to follow new FSMA guidelines intended to reduce or eliminate contamination en route. The issue of safe food delivery is especially important for perishable items that must be refrigerated, such as meat and dairy products.

“The objective [of the sanitary transportation rules] is to prevent food from becoming unsafe by ensuring that it is properly refrigerated, that vehicles and trailers are properly cleaned and sanitized, pallets are sanitary and food is properly protected and stored at correct temperatures during transport,” said Jon Samson, executive director of the American Trucking Associations’ Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference.

In its guidance to the industry, FDA mentions a couple of examples. One is a requirement that shippers inspect their vehicles top to bottom to eradicate pests and eliminate any trace previous food shipments that might contaminate a new haul. Another example involves temperature control; transport companies who use refrigerated, temperature controlled trucks must maintain careful calibration records demonstrating that the proper temperature was maintained throughout the shipment.

These and related rules took effect on April 6 for major shippers, but an unforeseen problem has cropped up: the regulatory agency was supposed to offer a one-hour online training course for truck drivers to help insure sanitary transportation, But so far, nada.

That’s embarrassing, but it doesn’t constitute a crisis, industry observers note. For one thing, shippers can create their own training programs, or use programs developed by other firms or by universities. For another, smaller trucking firms have another year to comply with FSMA. Finally, major components of the food industry, such as dairy, are already governed by transportation rules that are even stricter than the new FSMA guidelines.

So far, the FDA has declined comment on the training program delays. Given the changeover in Administrations, however, it’s hardly surprising that deadlines are and will continue to be missed as agencies adopt to new internal procedures.

For now, the safe transportation of human and animal food is somewhere between a goal and a requirement. It’s an example in which the driver of change will be the drivers themselves.