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August 11, 2014 2:15 AM, EDT

FDA Plan Costly, Unnecessary, Agricultural Haulers Caution

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Aug. 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

A proposed federal rule that would toughen requirements for the transport and handling of food would be costly and is unnecessary, trade groups representing food haulers, farmers and distributors said.

The 120-page U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposal, mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act, sets out the criteria for sanitary transportation practices that include properly refrigerating food, adequately cleaning truck trailers between loads, properly protecting food during transportation and strengthening record-keeping standards.

Although FDA conceded that in recent decades there have been only “isolated incidents of insanitary transportation practices,” the agency said the rule would help reduce the likelihood that conditions during transportation could lead to illness or injury.

FDA estimated that more than 83,000 firms would be subject to the rule and that it would collectively cost those firms $149 million the first year after the final rule becomes effective.

The public comment period on the proposed rule ended July 30. FDA projects it will issue a final rule in 2016.

“While we expect small changes in behavior [in the form of safer practices], we do not anticipate large-scale changes in practices as a result of the requirements of this proposed rule,” FDA said.

Although it said the rule was well-intended, American Trucking Associations questioned whether it would have any benefit.

Statistics show there are 85 million shipments of food each year in the United States, and over the previous 36 years, there were only four instances of transportation-caused food-borne illness, wrote Jon Samson, executive director of ATA’s Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference.

“These statistics show an industry that has done, and continues to do, the right thing when it comes to transporting our nation’s food,” Samson said.

The rule also would add cost to the bottom lines of carriers, shippers and receivers that would be passed on to consumers, trade groups said.

The American Wholesale Marketers Association, whose members supply convenience stores and small groceries, said members would be forced to take on the roles of receivers, shippers and carriers alike.

“Our concerns are over the prospect of requirements for maintenance of additional written procedures and records by carriers and shippers related to transportation equipment, cleaning, prior cargos, and temperature controls,” wrote Scott Ramminger, CEO of AWMA.

Bodega Association USA, a trade group that represents over 5,000 small-business owners located in mostly low-income neighborhoods in the New York area, said that it has concerns over the proposal since most of its members visit local food wholesalers and take their items back to their places of business for resale.

“Most, if not all, of our members cannot afford to purchase refrigerated vehicles, and this extra cost will force many out of business,” Bodega President Ramón Murphy wrote. “If our members were forced to buy from delivery companies, prices would rise, which would unfortunately create higher prices for our customers and have potentially devastating consequences.”

PennAg, a 600-member agriculture trade group, raised concerns that FDA’s proposal fails to define what constitutes a farmer.

“As currently stated in the draft rule, a farmer can use a truck and trailer to haul soybeans to a feed mill and be exempt from the rule,” wrote PennAg Assistant Vice President Jennifer Reed-Harry.

Yet, a farmer who hires someone to use the same truck and trailer to haul the same beans to the same feed mill would not be exempt from the rule, Reed-Harry wrote.

The Northwest Horticultural Council, a Washington state-based trade association that represents growers, said its members usually place harvested fruit in an open bin and transport it to a cold-storage facility or packing house on a flatbed or straddle carrier.

“Any requirement for enclosed transportation would necessitate extremely costly changes to current handling practices,” council President Christian Schlect wrote.

ATA also said the rule could increase driver-training costs and that the number of cargo-damage claims could rise if receivers of refrigerated shipments are forced to decline loads that are outside certain temperatures for a short period.

“ATA believes that if those within the supply chain were held to strict, rigid standards within a contract that perfectly good loads would be deemed adulterated as a precaution to ensure regulations are not violated,” Samson wrote.