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Is Transportation the Weak Link?

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Tying tracking, traceability, transparency to trucking.

Lisa Lupo | August 10, 2011

As both food safety and food defense take on increased visibility and regulation, the industry is finding that a bevy of “TRs” are taking on significance as key buzzwords of the decade: Tracking, Traceability, and Transparency.

But even as processors are integrating systems to embrace these, they are finding that one TR in the chain of custody is often falling outside their systems, with questions arising on both sides as to how to best ensure safety and defense in Transportation.

Is transportation, in fact, the weak link in the chain?

Even if we put aside global shipments, trains, and planes, and focus solely on trucking, how can processors ensure the safety and defense of your foods, supplies, and ingredients as these roll out from your chain of custody across the under-regulated highways of the U.S.?

There is a law on the books: “Since 2005 Congress has been asking the FDA to write up a transportation standard,” said James Cook, SGS food technologist. “There is a law in place, but no regulations to go with it. Transportation may not be the weakest link, but it definitely is a weak link.”

“This is a largely unregulated section of the food chain,” agreed David Acheson, Leavitt Partners managing director of food and import safety practice, and former FDA associate commissioner for foods. “There is guidance but nobody is really regulating it. There is this strange ‘Whose responsibility is it?’ going on between the Department of Transportation and the FDA.” No one, he said, is taking on the responsibility of this weak link on the national, state, or local level.

As such, Acheson said, “I’m not sure if it is the weakest link, but it is a weakness that certainly needs looking at; it is a weakness that poses risk.”
“There are parallel forces going on to upgrade the safety of our food chain,” said Fritz Buss, technical director for Nelson Jameson, citing the Bioterrorism Act and increased registration requirements for any facility that holds food—including truck terminals. Registration is no longer just a list, it is a requirement to stay in business.

In addition, tracking currently focuses more on the processing of food, Buss said. “What happens to it in between seems to be kind of an afterthought. There should be a strict chain of custody with seals and logs tracking it all the way through.”

FDA Tool for Food Defense Mitigation

The Food Defense Mitigation Strategies Database (MSD) is one of several tools developed by the FDA for the food industry to help protect the food supply from deliberate acts of contamination or tampering. The non-binding safety measures are specific to individual categories that impact every step of the food production and distribution process and are available at http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fooddefensemitigationstrategies. In addition, FDA Guidance on Food Security Preventive Measures includes guidance for food in transport that food processors can take and can request of contracted transporters. Recommendations from these two documents, particularly focused on minimizing the opportunities for intentional contamination of products transported in LTL status include:

Prior to departure
  • Verify shipping documentation.
  • Reconcile documentation anomalies.
  • Verify status of locks.
  • Ensure all trailer openings are secured.
On the road
  • Verify that the trucking company has established policies that drivers:
    –    keep tractor and trailer locked when not in the truck;
    –    never leave keys in truck;
    –    schedule rest stops at well-lit public locations;
    –    follow an authorized passengers-only policy;
    –    understand and be alert for unusual occurrences at fueling and rest stops.
  • Select trucking companies that:
    –    provide driver communication equipment and require scheduled driver check-ins;
    –    provide contact list in case of suspicious occurrences;
    –    use relay operators and team drivers, always keeping one with the vehicle;
    –    have locked and/or sealed vehicles/containers/railcars; provide the seal number from the supplier; maintain chain of custody when a seal is broken;
    –    can verify the location of any load using GPS or similar technology;
    –    have established delivery schedule, routes, and delivery times; don’t accept unexplained, unscheduled deliveries or drivers; investigate delayed or missed         shipments.

At delivery
  • Supervise off-loading of incoming materials, including off-hour deliveries.
  • Reconcile the product and amount received with that ordered and that listed on the invoice and shipping documents.
  • Investigate shipping documents with suspicious alterations.
  • Inspect incoming materials for tampering, contamination, damage, or counterfeiting.
  • Reject suspect food.
  • Alert law enforcement and public health authorities about evidence of tampering, counterfeiting, or other malicious, criminal, or terrorist action.

Non-Binding Guidance. There is a provision in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that specifies that by July 2012, “the Secretary shall promulgate regulations to address the safe transport of food,” said Kari Barrett, a Leavitt Partners senior director, specializing in food safety policy and regulation.

“I haven’t seen any recent Agency actions, but last Spring, April 30, 2010, the Agency published an ANPRM  (Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) on implementing the Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 2005 (2005 SFTA) as well as a related guidance to industry,” Barrett said, adding, “The FSMA provision is just pushing the Agency to get this rulemaking done.”

This is not to say that the USDA or FDA are completely ignoring the issue. Along with this proposed rulemaking for sanitary transportation requiring that “FDA prescribe sanitary transportation practices to ensure that food (including animal feed) transported by motor vehicle or rail is not transported under conditions that may adulterate the food,” both FDA and USDA have published guidance documents with “non-binding recommendations” for safe and secure transportation of food, including FDA’s Guidance on Bulk Transport of Juice Concentrates and Certain Shelf-Stable Juices that provides some best practices for the juice industry.

In addition, FDA has created an online Food Defense Mitigation Strategies tool, and both agencies refer the industry to U.S. Postal Service and CDC guidelines for handling of suspicious packaging.

However, while the industry awaits rulemaking on the six-year-old SFTA, and without rulemaking on transportation food defense on the horizon, what are the key issues? And how does the food processor control the safety and defense of its food as it is driven through what is, too often, outside its realm of control?


The Issues. The lack of control is generally of greatest concern to smaller processors, because they don’t carry the clout of large processors to enforce general standards, and in- and out-bound shipments are often less than truckloads (LTL) shipped through general carriers or postal services.

“As a small producer/small user, I can’t control it,” said California Natural Products (CNP) Director of Quality Bruce Ferree. “I can’t write a standard and have all trucking companies adhere to it.”

As a co-packer, CNP will often receive single items, such as a 500-pound package of flavoring from a customer. It is sent through a general carrier on a mixed load, so neither the customer nor CNP may know what else is included in the same truckload, and the trucker will have a multitude of stops, during which the truck may or may not be locked and secured; pallets may be moved around to load or off-load items; and additional items may be loaded that have the potential to cross contaminate.

“It’s tough for us,” Ferree said. “We cope a lot, because we don’t get full truckload quantities of a lot of things.”

One real example of a “worst-case scenario” that Ferree encountered at a previous plant involved a truck that arrived at the dock to pick up a shipment. When Ferree looked at the load already on the truck, he saw that it was carrying a tank of radioactive waste. “I refused to put our food into the truck—and the driver ask me why!” Ferree said. Although worst-case, it was also one of the easiest decisions he’s had to make. Worse is when you don’t know what a truck is carrying—or was carrying before it got to you, he said.

“The easiest job a quality manager has is when his forklift driver calls and says a truck is too dirty.” A carrier may question the judgment of the forklift driver and want verification from the quality assurance manager, but, Ferree said, “If a forklift driver thinks it’s too dirty, what do you think the quality manager will say?”


Chain of Custody. Thus, while some aspects of food safety can be checked prior to loading or receiving, such as sanitation and cross-contamination, which can be somewhat monitored through visual inspections, and temperature, for which several products exist, it is the on-the-road, multi-stop, and driver-break food safety and defense practices over which the food industry has little to no control.

“There is no chain of custody all the way to the customer,” Ferree said. “It’s just not there. There’s a bill of lading, but no chain of custody; there is no responsibility for it once they break the seal at a stop.”

Ferree said he would prefer that the industries be able to self-regulate rather than have to have government intervention, but there do need to be some industry standards by which all truckers adhere, whether that be originated by the food or the trucking industry.

“I see the food industry trying to police it without having control over it, but I think it has to come from the trucking industry itself. The food industry can’t police the truckers. We have to trust them,” Ferree said. On the other hand, he added, “Maybe it’s like SQF or GFSI where we set standards and say we’ll only ship with people that are certified.”


The Trucking Industry. According to comments from James Morton, national chairman of the American Trucking Association and director of security for Prime Inc., Ferree’s observations seem to be headed down the right road.

There are currently no set industry standards, particularly in relation to food defense during transportation. Rather, Morton said, “the standards that trucking companies abide by, for the most part, are passed by the shippers or receivers themselves. They are not developed by the industry.”

For that reason, if a food company is working with an LTL carrier, “you just have to have a trust factor with whomever you’re dealing with—with the company carrying your food and the driver himself.”

Although the ATA is trying to move toward standards based on industry practices, it is the food industry that really needs to drive the effort, Morton said.

“It is starting to come more to the forefront,” agreed Nick Erdman, business development manager for Transport Security. In the past, food defense standards were more of a “good to have” practice. “Now we’re seeing that security, particularly for the food industry, is becoming more of a necessity.”

#1 Stolen Product: Food. Over the past few years, processors have started asking more questions and setting guidelines for carrier food defense practices, he said. Today a receiver is likely to refuse a load if a seal is broken, he said, and that is exactly what will impact the trucking industry and driver standards.  If a load is refused, a claim is put into the trucking company, and that “hits the bottom line.”

However, Morton said, the trucking industry still gets very little direction from food processors in relation to security. “Mainly they are concerned with temperature variation and on-time delivery,” he said. It is an area, however, in which processors should take greater initiative, he said, explaining, “Food products are the number one stolen commodity on trucks.”

Between February 2010 and 2011, food and drink product theft made up 20 percent of all cargo theft in the U.S., Morton said. Sometimes a thief will break the seal and lock and take cases of food or drink, but there are also plenty of incidents in which the entire tractor trailer is stolen.

While there are some general standards for the trucking industry, such as locking and sealing of doors, the type of lock, resealing of multi-stop loads, and record-keeping of seals vary greatly by carrier and driver. And, Erdman said, affirming Ferree’s contention, “LTL is really the most vulnerable link in a supply chain.”


Suspicious Mail Packages

When utilizing carriers such as the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), UPS, and FedEx, recommendations from USPS and FDA include:

Implement procedures to ensure the security of incoming mail and packages:
  • locate the mailroom away from food processing and storage areas;
  • secure the mailroom;
  • screen mail and packages visually or with x-ray mail/package screening.

Be suspicious of any incoming mail or package that is:
  • unexpected or from someone you don’t know.
  • addressed to someone no longer at your address.
  • handwritten with no return address or one that you can’t confirm as legitimate.
  • lopsided or lumpy.
  • sealed with excessive amounts of tape.
  • marked with restrictive endorsements such as “Personal” or “Confidential.”
  • covered by excessive postage.

If you are suspicious of any mail/package:
  • don’t handle a letter or package that you suspect is contaminated;
  • don’t shake it, bump it, or sniff it;
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water;
  • notify local law enforcement authorities.
Selecting a Transporter. All this said, issues that impact food safety or security during transport do have an impact on the brand reputation not only of the food company, but also of the trucking company. The more a trucking company can show that it is following protocols necessary to the safety of the supply chain, the more customers will rely on and use them for transport, he said.

For smaller processors, Morton said, “It’s all in the hiring process. Work with those who will stay in contact with you.” The drivers themselves can pose the greatest challenge, so conducting due diligence prior to hiring a transportation company can help prevent problems on the front end.

As processors well know, one challenge of food safety is the many and varied forms it can take. This can be particularly challenging for the trucking industry for whom food is not its sole cargo, and, in some cases, such as colas, can even be considered a hazardous material, requiring extra certification to carry, Morton said.

There are, however, no requirements to be able to carry food, he said. So the system is unregulated unless a company or customer has specified standards. And although the food industry has seen numerous recalls, Morton said, “It is not something that has happened on a truck ... yet.”


Identify the Weakness. One area in which the food industry can take a leading role is the identification of potential weak points in the chain, said Lance Reeve, AIB director of food defense. “The processing industry needs to follow their raw materials and finished product and identify the weaknesses,” Reeve said. “Find out where issues are occurring.” Once these are identified, steps can be taken for security.

Reeve gave the example of trucks that haul flour to bakeries. The trucks, which return to the mill empty, are usually washed only once or twice a week; and though generally sealed when filled with flour, seals are not always affixed for the empty return. But even when empty, an unsealed truck provides opportunity for tampering, thus the food manufacturer needs to take the responsibility to seal all trucks for the return trip.

As tracking, tracing, and transparency requirements continue to increase for the food industry, the industry needs to demand the same of its transporters. The trucking industry is very capable and has tremendous integrity, Buss said, it’s just that its current business model makes food handling very difficult.

However, it is something that the trucking industry will need to address—sooner rather than later. It is an incremental process, and “it’s not like the hammer is going to fall today or tomorrow,” but, he said, “There is a freight train coming down the tracks,” and it will need to be addressed.


Help Shape Regulation. In fact, Acheson said, the regulatory vehicle is already in motion. “There is a trajectory headed toward federal regulation, so right now there is an opportunity for the food industry to get out in front of the regulation and build a coalition between the two endpoints.”

Although the public has not yet seen FDA focus on the transportation provisions of the FSMA, “no stone is being left unturned,” Acheson said. FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor is focused on meeting all FSMA deadlines, and every item of the Act is currently being addressed.

As such, Acheson advises that the industry start developing standards, get out in front with the trucking industry, create a consortium, and prepare to enter into a dialog with the FDA. Provide FDA with input for consideration on industry needs and proposals for regulation “that you can live with before they do something that you can’t live with,” he said.

 

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.