Safe food supply must be our priorty

Another food safety crisis swept across the United States this summer. By the time it was all over, more than 1,400 people had been sickened by salmonella poisoning, and the US produce industry had lost at least $300 million that can never be recovered.

The crisis started in June with reports that people in various parts of the country were getting sick from an unusual strain of salmonella. Initially, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that researchers believed tomatoes were the source. Later, the FDA officials shifted the blame to jalapeño peppers and finally to Serrano peppers.

Investigators from the FDA, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eventually found that the contamination occurred on a farm in Mexico. US growers had nothing to do with it, but they still paid a high price. The losses were not even covered by crop insurance.

Both the FDA and CDC were criticized for the way they responded to this salmonella outbreak. Tens of millions of dollars in funding went to both agencies following passage of the Bioterrorism Act, but it hasn't improved the way they respond to a real crisis. A Congressional committee concluded the agencies were slow to respond, they used flawed methodology, and their initial conclusions were completely wrong.

This should serve as a wakeup call for every company involved in food distribution. This is not just a produce industry issue. Every company that is part of the food supply chain (including tank fleets hauling edibles) is vulnerable to the sort of FDA and CDC blunders that were so costly for the US produce industry this summer.

A proactive approach is a must. Food haulers need to follow proven procedures for safeguarding their cargoes. Carriers must not only guard against contamination but be able to prove that their equipment did not cause a contamination.

Every food hauler needs to develop a security plan and keep it up to date. To help food fleets develop these plans, the American Trucking Associations has posted voluntary guidance for enhancing agricultural industry security on its truckline.com website. It is called “Guide for Security Practices in Transporting Agricultural and Food Products.”

Food haulers need to operate the right equipment for the job and ensure that it is well maintained. Some in the food industry believe technology can help prevent contamination. This includes electronic recordkeeping on the trucks, satellite tracking, and electronic seals on the trailers.

The tracking and recordkeeping systems do provide good shipment tracking data as part of a fleet security plan, and the electronic seals can help foil a deliberate attempt by a third party to contaminate a load. A critical question with all of these systems is this: Does the security they provide offset the cost? In many cases, the jury is still out.

Inadequate cleaning may pose the biggest contamination threat for tank truck fleets at this time. That was the point hammered home by a couple of speakers at the National Tank Truck Carriers Tank Cleaning and Environmental Council Seminar in March and the International Milk Haulers Association annual meeting in April.

Speaking at the Tank Cleaning and Environmental Council Seminar, Paul Winniczuk, an assistant research scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Florida, described the results of an ongoing study into foodgrade cleaning. In tests using 176 tanks that had contained a variety of products (including juices, oils, milk, eggs, and peanut butter), Winniczuk detected bacteria even with the most thorough interior cleaning procedures.

The study also pointed out ways to improve foodgrade tank cleaning. Wash equipment must be correctly assembled and aligned, wash cycle times must be accurately calculated, and the relationship of water flow rates to pressure should be appropriate.

Domelids need extra attention and should be hand washed with warm water and soap, according to Winniczuk. Wash workers must take care not to contaminate tank hardware that already has been cleaned.

Winniczuk added that his study often detected milk residue after clean-in-place (CIP) systems were used to wash out cargo tanks. His concerns about the effectiveness of CIP systems were echoed by speakers at the IMHA annual meeting.

Bill Pepper with Dairy Farms of Ontario said Canadian regulations call for a full post cleaning inspection of all interior tank surfaces that come in contact with milk. CIP systems must be properly installed and maintained. Spray balls must be cleaned out regularly. It's not unusual to find balls plugged with debris, such as pebbles and pieces of metal and plastic.

Keeping transport equipment free of contamination must be a priority for each and every food hauler. This is the first (and sometimes the only) line of defense to ensure a safe food supply for the American people. Failure to secure that food supply carries a high price for all of us.

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