Hot trucks problem getting worse


Two months after 13 Investigates first exposed "hot trucks" carrying dangerous food to Indiana grocery stores and restaurants, Indiana State Police are calling for change. They say the problem is getting worse, and closing a loophole in state and federal law is necessary to protect our food supply.

INDIANAPOLIS - "If it's happening here in Indiana," it's happening in Texas and North Carolina and California," said Capt. Wayne Andrews, who oversees Indiana State Police's Motor Carrier Enforcement Division. "This is not just an Indiana problem and we need to do more to address it."

The problem is commercial food trucks carrying perishable food at dangerous temperatures.  Beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, and produce – 13 Investigates found all of it being transported in hot trucks that do not have proper refrigeration.

"It's just not working properly and it had approximately a 94.7 degree reading at the time of the traffic stop," explained ISP Trooper Ashley Hart, standing next to a hot truck she pulled over along Interstate 65 near Lafayette. The truck was carrying raw meat, eggs and produce from a warehouse in Chicago to restaurants in Indianapolis.

"It's absolutely disgusting," she added.

13 Investigates first exposed the problem in July as state police partnered with local health departments to keep spoiled food from hot trucks off Hoosier dinner plates. Since then, the danger has not gone away.

"The problem is growing," said Andrews, whose motor carrier inspectors have found more hot trucks than they ever expected.

"It's not just a few as we may have initially thought," he explained. "It looks like it's quite prevalent and it's just growing. I think it's a huge issue."

Last week, on a 92-degree day, state police stopped a food truck heading northbound on Interstate 69 near Muncie.  The truck's refrigeration unit was broken and inside, eggs, pork, shrimp, and fish were found to be 66 degrees. Food safety inspectors from the Delaware County Health Department say that is both dangerous and illegal.

"Many of these items were originally frozen and they thawed out so much, they are now in the 50s," said inspector Susan Morris. "It's required to be at 41 degrees or below. We'll be throwing this away."

About 1500 pounds of food headed to restaurants in the Fort Wayne area was removed from the hot truck and taken to a landfill.   

During a separate stop near Tippecanoe County, state troopers found another hot truck headed to Indianapolis. 

"Upon opening the door, I immediately saw flies and we were overcome with a strong odor of rotten food," Trooper Hart said. "It's pretty nasty … the [raw] chicken is in open bags. All the juices have run down on the rest of the load. It is not safe at all."

Craig Rich, chief food safety inspector for the Tippecanoe County Health Department, agrees.

"It's proven that chicken out of temperature is going to give you salmonella and to have that [food] transported at this high of a temperature is almost guaranteed to get someone sick," he said. Rich ordered most of the food on the truck – including eggs, pork, chicken, beef and tofu – to be destroyed instead of being delivered to Indianapolis grocery stores and restaurants.

"There has to be people getting sick from some of the food products that are being transported here in Indiana based on what we found," Andrews told WTHR. "It's very, very scary."

Perhaps even more scary, 13 Investigates discovered most food trucks never get inspected because of a major loophole.  Health inspectors are not allowed to stop a moving food truck to inspect it. State motor carrier inspectors can pull a truck over, but if they find dangerous food inside, they have no authority to do anything about it.

"Right now I can't do that," explained Andrews. "It's not a violation for it to be 100 degrees outside, have raw chicken on board and it to be 85 degrees inside the container. There's no violation I can enforce under the commercial motor vehicle enforcement code. If I can't get the state board of health or local board of health out here, I have to let the load go down the road. That's the unfortunate thing and you don't want to see that."

State Police want the current system to change, and the fix may need to come from Washington. 

To change the nation's motor carrier regulations would require either a new law from Congress or a new rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation.  Those options will be discussed next week, when Andrews takes the issue to a national conference of motor carrier regulators and trucking industry executives.  Andrews has delivered a "request for action" to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance ahead of its upcoming national conference in Austin, TX. The group has an important voice in initiating changes to the federal motor carrier enforcement laws, and Andrews will present the hot trucks problem to one of CVSA's technical committees in the hopes of gaining support.   

"I believe that everybody who hears the problem will see that it is an issue that needs to be addressed," Andrews said.

CVSA executive director Stephen Keppler told WTHR he has recently started exploring the issue of hot trucks after Indiana State Police brought it to his attention.

"We're trying to figure out if this would be a transportation safety issue or a health safety issue, and whether it's state or federal," he said. "Clearly this is an important safety issue for the public, and if the public were to know this is an area that's not being watched closely, there will be swift action, I'm sure,"

In the meantime, Indiana State Police are also exploring other options to protect Hoosiers from bad food on hot trucks. One possibility is a new state law that would give state troopers more authority.

It's unclear whether such a proposal would have support in the general assembly, but the chairman of the House Public Health Committee believes legislation to address hot trucks would get a warm welcome.

"It's definitely a health concern," said Rep. Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville), adding he would support discussion of the issue if it were sent to his committee. "I think it definitely would raise to the interest of the citizens and, yes, I'd very much [support] have a hearing on it."

Indiana's effort to crack down on hot trucks is about to get some national exposure.  After seeing WTHR's investigation, NBC's TODAY Show has decided to highlight this problem as a national issue. TODAY sent a crew to Indiana last week and will feature a special report on hot trucks September 22 -- this Thursday morning. You can see the report on Channel 13.