Highway bill targets food

Sept. 1, 2005
TUCKED AWAY in the recesses of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was a provision specifically

TUCKED AWAY in the recesses of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was a provision specifically directed at food transportation. It could have a significant impact on the companies that ship and transport a wide range of edibles.

The highway bill provision is a rewrite of the Safe Food Transportation Act, and it does two things. First, it transfers jurisdiction for food transport regulations from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Second, HHS is directed to compile and publish a list of nonfood products that could contaminate edibles that are hauled later in the same vehicle.

Change number one probably is good for the trucking industry. DOT never wanted the jurisdiction to regulate food transportation. The department always felt that other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (an HHS agency), were better equipped to regulate food transportation. DOT will continue to participate in regulatory enforcement during roadside inspections and other activities.

Change number two could be more of a problem. An extremely restrictive rule could reduce productivity and raise operating costs for tank truck carriers and their customers. More dedicated equipment might be required.

The original Safe Food Transportation Act of 1990 was part of the fallout from a firestorm of controversy arising over news reports in 1989 that trucking companies were using the same trailers to haul food and other cargoes, such as “hazardous toxic chemicals.” At the time, there were few clear-cut restrictions that prevented fleets from hauling edibles one way and backhauling a nonfood cargo.

Not surprisingly, Congress had a field day with the issue. In fact, the debate over the legislation lasted from late 1989 until late 1990. The Safe Food Transportation Act (SFTA) wasn't signed into law by the first President Bush until November 1990.

In a nutshell, SFTA prohibited the transportation of food products in cargo tanks that are also used for nonfood products that would make food unsafe to the health of humans and animals. Vehicles used to transport food products must be marked accordingly. These provisions remain in effect today.

Despite resistance from the White House and DOT, Congress insisted on handing primary responsibility to DOT. However, the department was instructed to cooperate with the Department of Agriculture, FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency in developing regulations for compliance (recordkeeping and such), tank cleaning procedures, and foodgrade cargo tank specifications.

The act instructed the Secretary of Transportation to issue a “list of non-food products which do not make food unsafe to the health of persons or animals as a result of transport in a tank truck.” Congress also directed DOT to come up with a list of non-food products “which present an extreme danger to human or animal health.” A tank used to carry an “extremely dangerous” product could never again be used in the transportation of foodgrade products, regardless of the cleaning or decontamination method used.

As the uproar over the food transportation issue died down in the following months, Congress and the rest of the federal government turned to other issues, including the first Gulf War against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Regulations covering foodgrade cleaning, foodgrade cargo tank specifications, and approved product lists never were developed.

That could be changing. It will be interesting if any other lost provisions from the 1990 law are resurrected. We'll just have to wait and see.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.