FDA proposes new food transportation rule to prevent "hot trucks"

A state trooper stops a so-called "hot truck."

The US Food and Drug Administration has released proposed rules designed to improve the nation's system of food transportation and to prevent dangerous food from reaching your dinner plate.

The rules come three years after 13 Investigates began highlighting a dangerous problem on Indiana highways.

WTHR's Hot Trucks investigation exposed truckloads of spoiled and contaminated food being delivered to grocery stores and restaurants throughout the state.

"We saw those reports in Washington and they highlight why this rule is needed," said FDA Senior Food Safety Advisor Don Kraemer. "We know there certainly is the possibility for outbreaks associated with the things that you showed happening during transportation. The new regulation would reduce that possibility."

As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act mandated by Congress, federal regulators are now making changes that would, for the first time, give the FDA enforcement power over food transportation.

Under a detailed set of rules proposed by the FDA, food shippers and haulers would be required to take specific action to ensure that food is transported safely.

The proposed rules include several requirements:

  • Trucks used for food transport must be pre-inspected for cleanliness before food is loaded.  
  • The vehicles' cargo areas/trailers must be pre-cooled before accepting perishable food items.
  • Food haulers must be able to provide proof that proper temperatures were maintained during transit.
  • Employees must receive proper training in sanitary transportation practices.    

Those caught violating the rules could face fines and are subject to civil and even criminal prosecution. The FDA has proposed an exemption for small businesses that have less than $25.5 million in annual sales, but the rules would still impact more than 83,000 companies that ship and transport food in the US.

The rules are meant to send a clear message to those companies.

"It's not just good enough to have your food safe by accident. You actually have to take steps to make sure that it stays safe," Kraemer told WTHR. "We think that the vast majority of shippers are already doing the things we're proposing, but others are not, and that can present a real risk for foodborne illness… This rule is all about putting in preventative controls to try to minimize the likelihood that those things will occur. The question is: Did we get it right in who's regulated and what we're asking them to do?"

To answer that question, the FDA is hitting the road.

The agency has been hosting a series of public meetings around the country to discuss the proposed food transport rule and to get feedback. WTHR attended a recent meeting in Chicago. Hundreds of seats were set up for the meeting, but less than 60 people attended and only a few of those people offered public testimony.

"I applaud the FDA for this rule," said Vanessa Coffman of STOP Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit public health organization advocating for prevention of illness and death from foodborne illness. She did, however, voice some skepticism of the FDA's proposal.

"It is abundantly clear the FDA needs more funds and with an additional task on the table, it doesn't seem very likely the rules will be fully enforced," Coffman said at the public meeting in Chicago.

FDA officials admit funding the enforcement may be problematic, and the agency would rely on the US Department of Transportation, as well as local and state agencies like the Indiana State Police, to handle truck inspections.

So far, the agency has received little opposition. In Indiana, the initial response has been very positive – even from the state's trucking industry.

"There's nothing alarming here, and I think it's something we'd support," said Gary Langston, president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association. "I think it's a good idea to make sure you have a closed loop in the supply chain, so if you're a transporter of food and you're doing it the right way now, I don't see why this would be any additional hardship."

Indiana State Police like the proposal too. After WTHR's Hot Trucks investigation, the agency got a new state law that allows troopers to crack down on trucks that improperly transport food.

Troopers say a new federal law will help them even more.

"It will bolster what we're already doing, what we've already accomplished in Indiana," explained ISP Sgt. Rich Kelly after reading the FDA proposal.  "I think it's a positive. It's a step in the right direction."

"Disgusting video"

The issue of unsafe food transportation made headlines in 2011 when 13 Investigates exposed truckloads of unsafe food heading to Indiana restaurants and grocery stores.

WTHR cameras were rolling as ISP troopers discovered blood dripping from trucks carrying unrefrigerated meat to stores in Indianapolis, Columbus and Bloomington.

Eyewitness News video showed dozens of trucks transporting produce that had been cross-contaminated by fluids from raw chicken and pork. And local health inspectors condemned tons of milk, cheese, meat, eggs and produce that had been transported at unsafe temperatures on trucks that had no working refrigeration units.

"It's disgusting!" Trooper Ashley Kelly told WTHR during one of the stops. "You'd never want your family to eat any of this food, and it is going to restaurants."

For the past three years, Eyewitness News has continued to report on incidents of Hot Trucks in Indiana transporting food under dangerous conditions that can make you and your family sick.

With an estimated 48 million Americans getting sick and 3,000 Americans dying from food poisoning each year, federal lawmakers have been pressing the FDA to do something to bring down those numbers.

"That's not acceptable. Sounds like the system is broken," Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) told WTHR three years ago. "Enough is enough. Let's get some action here."

The new rules proposed by the FDA represent the first formal action by the federal government to improve food safety while in transit -- an area that has been neglected and vulnerable for decades.

Feedback needed

The FDA wants to know what you think of the proposed rule. You can read it here, then you can send your comments to the FDA through a special website set up by the agency.

The deadline for comments is May 31. The FDA says it will likely be 2016 before the final regulation takes effect.

Previous Hot Trucks Investigation reports