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June 20, 2014

State taking temperatures of trucks hauling food

HARRISBURG — A few weeks ago, state agriculture inspectors forced a trucker to toss 2,000 pounds of food in the garbage after finding the cargo had not been kept at safe temperatures.

Federal rules specify meat and dairy products be trucked at less than 40 degrees. The trucker stopped May 28 near New Castle was carrying a cargo — including meat — at 63 degrees, agriculture department spokeswoman Samantha Krepps said.

He already had delivered to seven restaurants in eastern Ohio and was headed to six more in the Sharon and New Castle areas, Krepps said.

Pennsylvania officials notified their Ohio counterparts, who forced the restaurants there to discard the food, said Lydia Johnson, director of the agriculture department’s bureau of food safety.

The incident, regulators fear, reflects a larger problem, as rising fuel prices create an incentive for shippers to cheat on food safety.

For the past year, state police and agriculture inspectors have been stepping up checks of refrigerated trucks.

Trucks handle 80 to 90 percent of food consumed in the United States, but state police Col. Frank Noonan said relatively little attention has been paid to monitoring the safety of food in transit.

“Unfortunately, most efforts aimed at protecting our food supply are focused on the beginning or end of the food chain,” Noonan said.

Officials said heightened scrutiny of the middle of the delivery process is needed for a couple of reasons.

One, Johnson said, is that truck refrigeration units are powered by diesel. Regulators worry penny-pinching drivers may shut off cooling units to cut costs.

Also, in the past, a division of labor between state police and agriculture officials muddled enforcement efforts.

Troopers who can stop trucks to check for safety violations were not trained to recognize food safety problems. On the other hand, agriculture inspectors who monitor food safety have no authority to stop trucks, Johnson said.

The bureau of food safety has now trained the state police’s trucking enforcement officers. Last spring, food inspectors rode with state police during a day-long check of refrigerated trucks.

Teams stopped 400 trucks shipping food during the crackdown and found 10 with unsafe conditions. Seven of those had unsanitary cargo areas, while three were shipping food at unsafe temperatures, according to state police.

In the more recent case, Johnson said, agriculture officials believed forcing the shipper to absorb the cost of the discarded food was financial penalty enough, so the trucking company nabbed in western Pennsylvania last month was not given any additional penalty.

James Runk, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Motor Transport Association, agreed the specter of covering the cost of a lost load deters all but the most desperate haulers from tinkering with a truck’s temperature.

Larger companies certainly will frown on anyone adjusting up the temperature in the cargo area, he said.

Any problems would most likely happen with independent operators, he said, trying to save money any way they can.

Johnson said agriculture officials and state police plan additional enforcement details this summer.

In the meantime, she said, trained police are recognizing dangerous situations — such as the incident a few weeks ago in Lawrence County.

Numbers of incidents involving unsafe food were not immediately available.

Even as the state focuses on the safety of food delivery, Johnson said, it’s ultimately up to a restaurant or store owner to recognize the food they’re getting is unsafe — and to protect consumers.

“If they receive food that is obviously not refrigerated,” she said, “they should refuse delivery.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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