13 Investigates finds feds ignoring"hot trucks" - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

13 Investigates

13 Investigates finds feds ignoring"hot trucks"

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As Indiana State Police find more shocking cases of spoiled and contaminated food heading to Indiana restaurants, 13 Investigates has discovered how food distribution companies get away with it. A six-month Eyewitness News investigation reveals the people who are supposed to be protecting you from this dangerous food have been looking the other way, putting millions of families at risk.

INDIANAPOLIS - Hundreds of miles from Indiana, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health sits in his Capitol Hill office, shaking his head.

"Enough is enough. I want action now!" says Joseph Pitts (R-Pennsylvania).

Pitts' comments came after he watched WTHR video showing truckloads of spoiled and dangerous food heading to Indiana restaurants and grocery stores. The powerful Congressman says seeing graphic video of contaminated food in transport makes him angry, but he is even more aggravated that more hasn't been done to stop it.

"It's been years and we still don't have anything. This has to end. It's got to end now," he said.

Eyewitness News has discovered a broken system of regulations and years of bureaucratic inaction have jeopardized the nation's food supply. And when it comes to food transportation, the federal agencies that are supposed to be keeping dangerous food off your dinner plate have done little to prevent it.

Startling discovery

It's a cool October day and – despite cool temperatures -- "hot trucks" keep rolling into Indiana.

The delivery trucks are transporting perishable food to restaurants and grocery stores, but their trucks do not have proper refrigeration.

Indiana State Police say one of their latest discoveries is also one of the most disturbing they've seen since 13 Investigates first broke the story four months ago

Last week, trooper David Eggers stopped a truck that was speeding near the town of Kentland in northwest Indiana.  Inside the truck, he found boxes full of contaminated food.

"Fluids from chicken and beef and pork were running onto the floor, and we found fluids from beef on vegetables," Eggers told Eyewitness News.

WTHR was there to see the contaminated load up close.  Eyewitness News cameras captured blood on the floor of the delivery truck – so much blood that it was flowing out onto the street below.

"These boxes are soaked through from blood," complained Newton County environmental health officer Jill Johnson as she inspected the load. "There's raw meat together with vegetables – all moisture damaged – and the potential for cross contamination is very great," she said.

Thousands of pounds of food inside the A1 Food Service delivery truck were supposed to be refrigerated, but the driver told inspectors he forgot to turn on the truck's refrigeration unit.  As a result, inspectors measured the temperature inside the cargo area of the truck at nearly 70 degrees -- dangerously high for transporting food. State and federal regulations require refrigerated food to be stored and transported at or below 41 degrees.

Johnson condemned the load, and all of the perishable food on board – destined for restaurants in Indianapolis, Columbus and Bloomington – was destroyed.

"You wouldn't want your family eating any of that that we just unloaded from this truck," Eggers said. "Hard to believe anyone would transport food like this."

Ongoing problems

It was not an isolated incident for A1 Food Service.

Health inspectors have cited the company four times in the past four months for serious food safety violations found on A1 trucks en route to Indiana restaurants.

Each time, state police and health inspectors documented perishable food that had suffered temperature abuse (transported above 41 degrees) and cross-contamination (juice from raw meat or raw seafood mixing with produce).  Hauling food under those dangerous conditions can easily make you and your family sick due to the increased risk of poisoning from e-coli, salmonella or listeria bacteria. 48 million Americans get sick every year from food borne illness and 3,000 of those people die, according to the latest estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control.

Danny Zheng owns A1 Food Service. His warehouse on the south side of Chicago distributes food to approximately 80 Asian restaurants in Indiana.

Zheng admitted his employees need more training to prevent future food safety violations.

"We will put the training on the first top priority … and I will do the best I can to avoid those things [from] happening," Zheng said – through an interpreter – in his native Chinese.  

A1 Food Service is not alone. 

Indiana State Police have repeatedly stopped other trucking companies carrying loads of spoiled meat, eggs, vegetables, milk and cheese. All of it was supposed to go to Indiana grocery stores and restaurants before being condemned by inspectors.

"It's happening a lot more frequently. Just about any day you go out now, you can find people in violation of the safe transportation for these food products," said Capt. Wayne Andrews, who oversees ISP's commercial vehicle enforcement division.

While ISP patrols have caught tens of thousands of pounds of spoiled food in the past four months alone, state troopers admit most contaminated truckloads of food slip through the cracks -- cracks that were supposed to be fixed years ago.

"Black hole" jeopardizes safety

In 2005, Congress ordered the Food and Drug Administration to create new regulations to protect the transportation of our nation's food supply.  The Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 2005 was designed to increase monitoring and accountability for the millions of food shipments that take place annually in the United States.  

Six years since the act became law, the FDA still has not issued the new regulations mandated by Congress.

"That kind of a delay … it's a long time, and that's unwarranted," said Chris Waldrup, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Waldrup says problems involving the unsafe transportation of food have generally received little attention from the FDA.

"Transportation has always been sort of a black hole, and that can really put consumers at risk," he explained.

Congressman Pitts agrees, and he is restless with FDA's inaction. The FDA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to begin the process of developing new regulations, but that was issued more than 18 months ago.   

"They've drug their feet for six years. We've doubled their budget in that six years. Enough is enough. Give us some regs," said Pitts.

Call to nowhere

While the FDA has yet to issue regulations, the US Department of Transportation and US Department of Agriculture were busy.

The agencies created a training video and other training materials for motor carrier safety inspectors, telling them what to do if they find a truckload of dangerous food. 

The video and brochures developed by USDOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service both tell inspectors to contact FSIS to report hot trucks.

Indiana State Police required all of its motor carrier inspectors to watch the video in 2009 and, since then, ISP troopers have tried to contact FSIS to report multiple incidents.

But the FSIS Midwest Region phone number provided by USDA and USDOT in their training materials leads to a disconnected phone line.  And when ISP commanders try to call FSIS using a phone number that does work, they get no reply.

"We tend to get no response at all," said Hans Schmidt, compliance review officer for ISP's commercial vehicle enforcement division. "We're not sure why."

Andrews said he's had the same experience.

"We've tried calling repeatedly. I can never get a real person – even during business hours – but I have left messages, four or five of them, and explained the severity of the situation we have and we just don't hear back," Andrews explained. "It's like in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz' where you're not sure if there's anyone behind the curtain. In my opinion, they're intentionally ignoring our requests and it's a dereliction of duty. It's very frustrating."

A spokesman at FSIS told 13 Investigates his agency has no jurisdiction over food transportation and had no role in developing the training materials provided to motor carrier inspectors.

"Our authority is in slaughterhouses and processing plants – not in transportation – so nobody should be calling us about that," said FSIS press officer Neil Gaffney. "Those calls should go to the FDA."

Gaffney later sent WTHR a correction, explaining USDA and FSIS do have authority over meat, poultry and processed-egg products in commerce, and that the agencies did partner with USDOT to create the training materials. He provided the following statement:

"The USDA works with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the FDA, states and local governments on food defense and food safety measures to provide the public with as seamless a level of protection as possible. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) inspects and investigates meat, poultry and processed-egg products loaded and unloaded at federal plants as well as at warehouses and other food distribution sites. We conduct surveillance and investigations at trucking company transporters where those products are loaded and unloaded.  Once en route, the truck and company records, including manifests, are under the jurisdiction of DOT.  Depending on where the food safety problem is discovered, the USDA takes action or DOT takes on a lead role and USDA assists.  If meat, poultry and processed egg products are being improperly transported, we will detain those products in order to protect consumers.  We encourage the public to report suspected violations by calling 1 (888) 674-6854."

Internal documents

To determine how vigorously FSIS pursues complaints, WTHR submitted a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of all complaints and reports involving the unsafe transportation of food submitted to FSIS.  The agency responded by stating a thorough search revealed it did not have any complaints on file.   

But internal e-mails obtained by 13 Investigates show FSIS has received complaints about hot trucks.  One such complaint came last year, when USDOT officials submitted a detailed report involving a serious case of contaminated food originating from Indiana. The e-mails show FSIS officials did not want to conduct a joint investigation with USDOT after motor carrier inspectors stopped a hot truck from Indianapolis that was full of spoiled food heading to restaurants in Michigan. 

A month after receiving the complaint, the regional director of the FSIS Midwest Region office in Lombard, IL, responded with a short reply: "Thank you for passing along this information, however, we will not be investigating this incident."

The FSIS Freedom of Information office could not explain why it was unable to track or locate complaints such as that one.  Consumer watchdogs say it is not a good sign.

"Transportation of food is a critical component of our food safety system. It has to be tracked carefully and it's one that cannot be ignored by federal agencies," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Smith DeWaal believes a system to track safety problems involving food in transit is a much-needed tool.

"Clearly the evidence Indiana has provided shows the federal government is not taking the situation seriously," she said. "It appears there is no one in Washington that's really taking responsibility for the safety of the food that's being transported around the country. The bottom line is if there's no one to call and no one to report to, then this is a problem that's not being addressed."

New regulations coming?

Officials at USDA, FSIS, FMCSA, USDOT and FDA all declined to meet with 13 Investigates to discuss their actions – and inaction – regarding food transportation. But sources inside the agencies tell Eyewitness News the FDA is now making this issue a priority and new food transport regulations will be released by next summer.

An FDA spokesman issued WTHR the following statement: "FDA currently is developing new regulations that will govern more specifically the shipment of all FDA-regulated food products.

In implementing new shipping regulations, FDA will train State and U.S. Department of Transportation inspectors to perform food-safety inspections of vehicles shipping food. This expansion of inspection resources will significantly increase enforcement of food transportation requirements."

The chairman of the House Food Safety Subcommittee is pushing federal agencies to take action as soon as possible, rather than wait until summer.  After seeing WTHR's "Hot Trucks" investigation, Congressman Pitts immediately contacted the FDA to set up a meeting. That meeting will take place in early November to determine what action federal regulators can take right away. 

"I'm meeting with them to say ‘Let's expedite this. What can you do now?'" Pitts explained. "After seeing your program, I'm very concerned. Anybody who has kids or grandkids should be concerned. Anybody who eats in a restaurant should be concerned. So I'm going to build a fire under them. I'm going to tell them we want action. We can't wait on this any longer."

See all stories related to this investigation.

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