Indiana State Police cracking down on more "hot trucks"
One year after WTHR and state troopers first exposed the problem, truckloads of dangerous food are still heading to Indiana restaurants and grocery stores. Even though police now have new tools to fight the problem, they say it's a daily battle that puts millions of Hoosiers at risk of food poisoning.
When Rich Kelly stopped a truck Tuesday afternoon for a routine safety inspection outside of Frankfort, he smelled a problem long before he saw it.
"The odor was so strong it really took me back," said the longtime Indiana State Police motor carrier inspector. "I knew there was putrified meat and other products inside."
He was right.
Inside the truck, Kelly found spoiling pork, chicken, fish, eggs, noodles, produce and other perishable food items heading to Chinese restaurants across Indiana. Health inspectors and other state police officers soon arrived on scene – with masks to cover their noses and mouths – to condemn the entire truckload of food.
They told WTHR it's one of the most blatant examples of cross-contaminated and temperature-abused food they've ever seen.
"It's definitely the worst case I've seen," said Clinton County food safety inspector John Brannan. "My temperature reading showed it was 101 degrees inside the truck. It was almost like they were cooking the food as they were driving …. that can really make people sick."
Brannan ordered all perishable food onboard (more than 6,000 pounds) to be destroyed, but some of it had already been delivered.
Restaurant admits past problems
Everything OK Chinese Buffet in Frankfort received chicken, eggs and produce from the hot truck just minutes before ISP and health inspectors recorded dangerously-high food temperatures inside.
After Brannan visited the restaurant Tuesday night to report what he had seen, the chicken and eggs delivered to Everything OK were thrown away.
"We think the temperature was OK, but we [threw] it away because the health department says so," said restaurant owner Ling Lee.
Lee told WTHR she rarely orders meat from U&D Service, an Indianapolis-based wholesaler of Chinese food products, because the company has delivered questionable products to her in the past. This week, she said, was an exception.
"It was an emergency. They are the only [company] that delivers on Tuesdays," Lee said. "Seriously, from the Chinese supplier, we turned [away] a lot of stuff before. That's why we don't order [much] from them. We will now worry more, of course. We just really have to be watching what [they're] doing."
Asked if she will stop ordering from U&D Service in the future, Lee was unsure.
"We [will] consider," she said. "Nobody's perfect."
Danger not going away
The world of food transportation is far from perfect – a harsh reality 13 Investigates first exposed last summer.
During a six-month investigation, WTHR showed truck after truck after truck loaded with rotten, spoiled, contaminated food heading to Indiana grocery stores and restaurants.
In response to the investigation, state lawmakers passed a new law to hold the owners and drivers of hot trucks accountable.
With outside temperatures routinely topping 90 and even 100 degrees for the past two months, state troopers are now getting plenty of chances to put Indiana's new food transport safety law to use.
Since stepping up their hot trucks enforcement over the past two weeks, ISP has been finding hot trucks round the clock.
"This is the third one I've stopped this week," said Trooper Ashley Kelly, as she inspected a truckload of spoiled food south of Lafayette. "We've had one every day."
Including yesterday's stop near Frankfort, state troopers have condemned more than 10,000 pounds of dangerous food in just the past week.
At times, it's clear state inspectors are frustrated by what they're seeing.
"Don't you tell me this food is at temperature," scolded Sgt. Rich Kelly, reprimanding a truck driver who accused ISP of wasting food that was "perfectly good."
"Your load is in the 50s," Kelly explained. "The internal temperature is over 41 degrees and all dairy products and all meat products are tossed out above that temperature. You said you're keeping it refrigerated, but you're not doing a very good job. Why isn't the food inside at legal temperature?"
The truck, which originated from the Hispamex Distribution warehouse near Chicago, was destined for 15 Mexican restaurants and grocery stores in Indianapolis, Beech Grove and Crawfordsville. It contained thousands of pounds of sour cream, yogurt, cheese, ham and sausage – and all of it was destroyed.
"I think the most disturbing part of this is all those items that are meant for children," said Tippecanoe County food safety inspector Craig Rich, pointing to hundreds of bottles of drinkable yogurt. "With these temperatures, that can really make them sick."
Under Indiana's new law, companies and drivers now get citations and fines.
The Hispamex truck driver received an A infraction citation, which carries a penalty up to $10,000," according to ISP.
If drivers attempt to take or salvage any of their condemned load, they can face even bigger problems under Indiana's food transport safety law.
"You're not going to keep anything, you're not going to taste anything, you're not going to take anything because if that goes with you, you're going to jail," Sgt Kelly told a Hispamex employee who opened a bottle of drinkable yogurt that had already been condemned.
"I didn't know that," said the man, who identified himself as Marco. "It's a tragedy to lose product like that."
The Hispamex vehicle was towed away after it broke down along I-65. State Police explained the vehicle would not be released until the company paid a $475 fee charged by a local disposal company for discarding all of the condemned food. In the past, that fee would be the responsibility of the local health department, but Indiana's new law changed that.
"Your truck is going to stay on that wrecker until you guys get the bill taken care of," Kelly told a Hispamex employee.
"We're losing a load, losing a lot of product, losing a lot of time," said Marco. "I'm pretty upset about all this."
Sgt. Kelly says it is consumers who should be upset.
"We're doing everything we can to stop these trucks and with the new statutes and new laws, we have seen some companies attempting to make changes," he said. "But others just don't get it and we can't catch them all. We know a lot of these trucks are getting through."
Update: The company just cited for delivering unsafe food to Chinese restaurants has been served a federal "out of service" order by Indiana State Police. ISP tells 13 Investigates that U&D Service Trucking in Indianapolis has not paid previous fines for past safety problems, and it has a long history of food-safety violations in Indiana. (WTHR showed many of those problems during previous segments of its Hot Trucks investigation.) As of tonight, the company is shut down pending further review, according to ISP.