Restaurants, state fighting back against dangerous food

Published: .
Updated: .

An Eyewitness News investigation into dangerous truckloads of food heading to Indiana restaurants is getting dramatic results. 13 Investigates shows how some restaurants are fighting back and the tough new consequences for those who put your family at risk.

You probably don't know Tak Hung Lee, but chances are you've eaten his food.

Lee owns a warehouse and trucking company on the east side of Indianapolis that distributes food to Chinese restaurants all over Indiana and the Midwest.

He may soon be headed to jail for putting those restuarants' customers at risk of food poisoning.

Lee's company is known as HK Trucking. State Police and state health inspectors know the company very well.

In recent years, they've repeatedly cited HK Trucking for serious food safety violations.

"There were several boxes of raw this truck behind me leaking onto the vegetables," said state Trooper Kyle West, who stopped an HK truck near Muncie in September.

Delaware County health inspector Susan Morris condemned the truckload of food after determining meat and fish were being transported at dangerously high temperatures, dripping juice onto produce.

"We have what should be a refrigerated truck, but it's not" Morris told WTHR. "All that food will be thrown away."

When inspectors find a truck loaded with dangerous food, disposing of that food is usually their only remedy. There is no fine or penalty for the company or the driver.

But with HK Trucking, the state is trying something different.

30 days in jail

Because the company has been cited by inspectors so many times, the state health department and attorney general's office decided to file a lawsuit against its owner.

The lawsuit prompted Tak Hung Lee to sign a court order in April. By signing the order, he promised to transport food safely and train his workers to make sure they could do that, too.

Again and again, HK Trucking violated the court order. In just the past four months alone, health inspectors cited HK at least eight separate times for more serious food safety violations involving tons of food heading to Indiana restaurants.

"They do not learn," said Wayne Andrews, who oversees Indiana State Police's motor carrier safety division. "They do not make corrections very well. We can write them a violation today, go back tomorrow, and they're doing the exact same thing… There's people getting sick -- no doubt about it."

After seeing the company's repeated violation, Judge David Certo decided to send a stronger message.

The Marion County Environmental Court judge ruled last month that Lee had "willfully disregarded the Court's order" by failing to follow through on his promises, continuing to put consumers at risk.

Certo ordered Lee to spend 30 days in jail and pay a $100,000 fine if he does not correct all food safety violations prior to his next court hearing in January.

"I think we're all disappointed or even angry when people don't follow the law," Certo told WTHR investigative reporter Bob Segall. "Our primary purpose is to protect the public health and safety. The next goal we have is to bring people into compliance with the law. Sometimes we have to take stronger measures to bring people into compliance."

After his court hearing, Lee would not answer any of WTHR's questions on the advice of his attorney.

That attorney, Joseph Russell, has not returned multiple phone calls from WTHR requesting to talk with Lee about his company's safety record and to see inside his food distribution warehouse.

No more excuses

The owners of other food transportation companies are now facing pressure, too, as local restaurants begin to fight back against their unsafe practices.

A1 Food Service is another company state troopers and local health inspectors have repeatedly cited this year for violating food safety codes.

The Chicago-based company, which delivers to 80 Asian restaurants in Indiana (including dozens in Marion County), had four truckloads of food condemned by inspectors in the past four months. Inspectors found pork and chicken transported at dangerously high temperatures and thawed meat dripping blood on vegetables.

When an Eyewitness News investigation exposed the safety violations this summer, local restaurants took notice.

"Since they're exposed on the news, most people quit ordering from them," said Kevin Lee, who manages a Chinese restaurant on the north side of Indianapolis. "I talked to other restaurants, and restaurant owners from this area, Indianapolis area, [have] quit ordering from A1."

He's right. 13 Investigates contacted ten area restaurants that did business with A1 this summer. All of them say they've stopped ordering from A1 Food Service. WTHR has been watching the back doors of those restaurants and, sure enough, it is now other food distributors that are making deliveries.

The Indiana Restaurant Association applauds the move.

"The quickest way to close a restaurant is to have a food borne illness issue, and there's no excuse for a supplier continuing to operate in an unsafe manner," said IRA president John Livengood. "You have to reject unsafe food. That's what we teach them to do, and if you have to switch suppliers to meet that end, then that's exactly what you should do."

Won't happen again?

Danny Zheng, the owner A1 Foods, said he knows his company has lost some business as a result of recent food safety violations documented by state police and Eyewitness News. But during a recent interview at A1's Chicago headquarters, Zheng told WTHR he is dedicated to making changes.

"It won't happen again in the future, and we will do the best we can and make those things not happen," he said.

A1 executives gave 13 Investigates a tour of their Chicago warehouse. Everything inside the warehouse appeared to meet food safety standards set by the FDA, with perishable frozen and refrigerated foods appropriately stored away from non-perishable items. But when A1 allowed us to look inside its delivery trucks, that's when we saw the same safety problems cited over and over by state police.

Boxes of raw eggs, chicken and meat were stacked on top of and directly next to boxes of raw vegetables inside each truck – a major food safety violation that poses a significant threat for cross-contamination.

"Those items must be separated," explained Craig Rich, an environmental health specialist at the Tippecanoe County Health Department. "Having those items co-mingled inside a truck is not acceptable. They should not be that close to one another."

Once investigative reporter Bob Segall pointed out the safety concerns, Zheng immediately moved the items and instructed his staff to keep them separated. He admitted his workers do not have adequate training in food safety.

"There probably is not enough training so [we] will put the training on the first top priority," Zheng said. A company representative said the training would begin soon and that A1 hoped to regain the trust – and business – of its lost customers in Indiana.

At some restaurants, it might be too late.

"No more," said Bin Chen, who manages a Japanese restaurant on the north side of Indianapolis. "In August they brought us some chicken that smelled bad. I stopped ordering from them in September."

"We are not taking any more food from A1. We saw the news reports and decided to stop," agreed Phil Lee, manager of another local Chinese restaurant. "We saw the video and it changed our mind completely."

While some WTHR viewers have asked 13 Investigates to publish a list of restaurants that do business with companies like A1 and HK Trucking. WTHR has chosen not to do that because there is no evidence those restaurants did anything wrong (the spoiled food found on board each truck was condemned and thrown away before it was delivered) and naming them could hurt their business. To protect you, WTHR has instead directly contacted the restaurants that were scheduled to get food that was condemned by inspectors. When told their food supplier was cited for serious food safety violations, most of the restaurants contacted by WTHR said they would start ordering food from a different source.

See all other stories from our "Hot Trucks" investigation