The dirty truth

by Adam Ledlow

TORONTO, Ont. – “Hello, and welcome to the Dirty Pallet Cafe. May I sprinkle some rat droppings on your salad? Perhaps the lady would enjoy a side of salmonella?” Though you’ll probably never hear these words uttered by any self-respecting maitre d’, a recent report heard by the US Food and Drug Administration claims that unsanitary conditions in the fresh food supply chain may be serving up consumers with more “ingredients” than they bargained for.

During the public hearing, held in College Park, Md. in April, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) outlined key issues facing the safe transport of fresh produce. OOIDA regulatory affairs specialist, Joe Rajkovacz, unveiled the “dirty truth” of unregulated practices in the transportation industry and how unsanitary conditions affect the safety of fresh produce.

“Best practices have been well known for many years, but economic considerations by shippers and receivers have trumped any meaningful implementation,” he said.

Claiming that the industry has been forced to live with filthy conditions for more than a decade, Rajkovacz said specific issues relating to the handling and shipping fresh produce include a lack of sanitary bathroom facilities and unsanitary “pallet exchange.”

The FDA also heard that – in order to be loaded – truckers are often forced to procure pallets from a pallet yard to exchange with a shipper, and that it is not unusual for pallets to be stained with animal blood, residue from chemical shipments or bird and rodent droppings.

So what can reefer haulers do to ensure that best practices are met and also protect themselves from liability claims?

When it comes to ensuring pallets are properly sanitized, many companies turn to the CHEP pallet program.

CHEP is a leader in pallet and container pooling services, which partners with a wide variety of suppliers, manufacturers, growers, transporters, distributors and retailers. The CHEP pooling system issues ready-to-use pallets and containers from its CHEP service centres to manufacturers and growers.

From there, the manufacturers and growers load their goods and ship their products through the supply chain and at the end of the supply chain, the pallets are returned to the nearest CHEP service centre where they are cleaned and repaired.

Currently CHEP manages the daily movement of about 280 million pallets across 44 countries.

“A lot of the major, multi-national companies in Canada and the US have gone to their CHEP pallet program to eliminate (sanitation problems), because CHEP pallets are basically always sent back to the CHEP depot and cleaned and repaired,” says Erb Transportation ‘s vice-president of international operations, Bruce Jantzi. “Whereas your regular whiteboard pallets or your CPC (Canadian Pallet Council) pallets are basically uncontrolled and they just move from plant to plant, whether its hauling batteries one day and hauling lettuce the next day.”

As a program working solely north of the border, the Trucking Food Safety Program encourages carriers to adopt best practices that ensure food safety is not jeopardized during transport.

Developed by the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) with the help of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the program is based on the widely-used Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, which has been customized for the trucking industry. All participating carriers must complete the core program which addresses issues such as sanitization, pest control, equipment specifications and transportation procedures. Then carriers branch off into different modules, depending on the commodities they haul.

There are currently 10 modules including: refrigerated products; frozen products; produce; dry grocery products; dry bulk; dairy; seafood; live animals; mixed loads and liquid bulk.

Trucking companies can conduct the training in-house or hire a consultant to do it for them. When they’ve completed the applicable modules, they are audited and then accredited under the program.

The problem, according to Jantzi, is that not all carriers choose to enrol in such programs. At the moment, the Trucking Food Safety Program is voluntary for the industry. Jantzi says that for most companies, cost is the largest factor in determining whether they will become involved with HACCP, but he also says there is a fear of undercutting another company by taking such shortcuts.

“That’s what it basically boils down to: taking shortcuts.”

At press time, three carriers had completed the program including Erb Transport, McConnell Transport and ColdStar Freight Systems, with another dozen or so carriers currently enrolled in the program.

“I’m sure both (Canada and the US) have small businesses that probably aren’t involved with HACCP, and certainly it probably happens where they’re taking a wood pallet that maybe has fish or poultry on it and using it with another commodity, so that there could be cross-contamination,” Jantzi says. “But if companies are part of the HACCP program, that would be something that they would eliminate.”

With product recalls like last year’s E.coli outbreak in spinach tainting the industry in more ways than one, Jantzi says that becoming involved in a program like HACCP – regardless of the cost – is simply not an option anymore.

“Things are so different now. You cannot take the chance of letting a (tainted) product enter the marketplace, because the liability is simply too great.”

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