PROTECTING our nation's food supply has long been a crucial part of the job for tank truck carriers, transloading operators, and storage terminals. It's something they do well, and we all benefit from their efforts every day with some of the safest food products in the world.
However, the importance of securing the food supply chain took on greater emphasis in the wake of the terrorist attacks that occurred two years ago this month in New York City and Washington DC. Participants in the liquid and dry bulk food logistics process rose to the occasion in meeting the new security challenges, but now they are being asked to do more.
New food security guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) were announced in August — measures that are almost certain to increase the cost of doing business. Issued by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the guidelines were developed specifically for food transportation and distribution. Similar guidelines were issued for food processors in May 2002.
The transportation and distribution guidelines are divided into two sections. The first provides measures to prevent the physical, chemical, radiological, or microbiological contamination of meat, poultry, and eggs. Some of the guidelines include developing a transportation safety plan that identifies potential vulnerabilities in the transportation, storage, and distribution chain.
The second section details specific security measures aimed at preventing contamination of food due to criminal or terrorist acts. The guidelines cover assessing vulnerabilities, securing facilities, conducting background checks on employees, and training employees to identify, prevent, and correct potential safety and security gaps.
International shipments of food products are spotlighted in the FSIS security guidelines. The agency points out that approximately 200.5 billion metric tons of food products are shipped internationally each year — 60% by sea, 35% by land, and 5% by air. In contrast, most domestic shipments move via ground transportation (truck and rail).
FSIS says all modes of transport must be made more secure for food shipments. Recommendations include participation in the Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC) program that is being developed by the Transportation Security Administration. Chain-of-custody recordkeeping should be much more comprehensive.
High-tech security systems are highlighted. The agency wants electronic tracking systems on transport equipment for both domestic and international movements. Systems should be put into place to detect tampering and radiological, biological, and chemical agents in shipping containers. Systems are needed to ensure security of transportation equipment at terminals, depots, and other facilities.
These guidelines are officially voluntary at this time, and they are directed specifically at transporters and distributors of meat, poultry, and eggs. Reality, however, is that food processors are likely to require carriers to follow most, if not all, of the guidelines. In addition, the guidelines probably will be applied to a much broader range of food products, including those shipped in bulk.
FSIS seems to have recognized the potential impact of the guidelines. In a Federal Register notice, the agency requested public comments to a series of questions relating to the guidelines. The agency wants to hear comments that address shortcomings, suggest possible improvements, or point out difficulties the guidelines may pose, particularly for smaller transportation, distribution, and storage companies.
These guidelines need a careful review by the transportation and distribution community because they could significantly increase the cost and difficulty of doing business. The industry needs assurance that costly technology and procedures will measurably improve security.
Food transportation groups have an important role to play in evaluating the guidelines, and some already have geared up. For instance, the Agricultural Transporters Conference (ATC) of the American Trucking Associations has acted proactively by scheduling an educational session on the guidelines for October 21 during the ATA annual Management Conference in San Antonio, Texas.
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