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March 26, 2012 6:30 AM, EDT

Food Safety Rules Likely to Affect Reefer Fleets, but Bigger Burden Will Hit Shippers, Experts Say

By Timothy Cama, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the March 26 print edition of Transport Topics.

New federal food safety regulations will bring new requirements to refrigerated trucking fleets, although many of the rules — which will not affect carriers directly — simply could reflect current best practices in the industry, according to manufacturers and experts.

The requirements are due to be published this year, thanks to the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. The law will overhaul much of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation and enforcement of food safety, from the farm to the plate.

FSMA regulations will set standards for keeping food sanitary during the transportation process and direct FDA to study food tracking and tracing needs, leaving open the possibility of future regulations in that area.

When the regulations, which have not been even proposed yet, take effect, the burden probably  will be on food producers, distributors and receivers to maintain safe practices, but those parties will bring new demands to food transporters, said Bud Rodowick, manager of fleet performance for Thermo King Corp., Minneapolis,  which manufactures transportation refrigeration units.

Although carriers won’t be affected directly by the new regulations, they will be the recipients of demands from the shippers and receivers that will be directly responsible for the condition of the food — such as milk, produce and refrigerated items — Rodowick told Transport Topics.

“You, the customer [of the fleet], will drive this train with your [quality-control] department into determining what you will do to be in compliance with those regulations,” Rodowick said.

FDA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, did not comment on its rulemaking process, as is often the case with federal agencies.

Carrier Transicold, which also manufactures transportation refrigeration units, declined requests for comment.

The Food Safety Modernization Act directs FDA to publish final regulations concerning sanitary food transportation by July, but “like every single rulemaking agency, they’re behind,” said Jon Samson, executive director of the Agriculture and Food Transporters Conference of American Trucking Associations. Samson predicted that a rule could be proposed by July, then finished in late fall.

Based on Samson’s conversations with FDA officials, he said he is not too concerned that the sanitary transportation regulations will be a major shock to the trucking industry.

The FDA officials “gave me a little bit of confidence that most of the industry best practices that are already in play right now will probably just be used to write those regulations, and then put those industry best practices into law,” Samson said.

The food safety law gives FDA leeway in developing the sanitary transportation rules, directing the agency only to write regulations “to ensure that food is not transported under conditions that may render the food adulterated.”

But Samson said the requirements that concern trucking are likely to focus on ensuring that food is at the correct temperature and hasn’t been tampered with throughout the transportation process.

Food transportation currently is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which sets the temperatures at which certain foods must be transported. FDA probably would require that food shippers and receivers ensure that the temperature is kept constant during the time the food is on the truck, Samson said.

“And I think that one of the main reasons that they don’t want to reinvent the wheel here on the transportation side is there are already regulations that are on the books, mainly through FSIS,” Samson said.

A major key to ensuring food sanitation is keeping trailers sealed and secure during the entire trip, said Thom Pronk, corporate vice president of recruiting, training and safety for C.R. England Inc., Salt Lake City. The carrier’s refrigerated fleet ranks as the largest in the United States and Canada on the Transport Topics 100 list of the largest for-hire fleets. C.R. England ranks No. 21 overall on the list.

“Our biggest responsibility is maintaining seal integrity,” Pronk said.

Seal integrity is a low-tech issue and often simply requires the shipper to put a metal device on the trailer’s doors that shows whether or not they have been opened during the journey.

Pronk predicted that proving that a trailer has stayed closed would be a major part of FSMA.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking with customers about is the types of seals they have as well,” said Dave Kramer, executive vice president of corporate sales at C.R. England. “The really thin little metal seals, they’re just not going to be good.”

The cheaper a seal, the higher the chances are that it would not show if it’s been tampered with, Kramer said.

Jack Peetz, president of Shaffer Trucking, New Kingstown, Pa., cautioned that the seal-integrity issue could be regulated in a way that is detrimental to trucking.

For example, if the regulations require that a seal stay intact during a journey, a carrier could be held liable if a seal breaks because of an issue beyond its control, Peetz said.

“We’ve had seals broken when drivers are taking their breaks at a truck stop,” he said. A vandal may simply break a seal to be a nuisance, without opening the door.

“A broken seal alone is not enough to establish contamination,” said Christopher Hilkemann, assistant general counsel for Shaffer and its parent company, Crete Carrier Corp., a Lincoln, Neb.-based fleet that ranks No. 25 on the for-hire TT 100. Shaffer’s entire 960-truck fleet hauls refrigerated trailers, but slightly more than half of Crete’s 3,900-truck fleet hauls food in dry van trailers, Peetz said.

Some seals, especially plastic ones, simply may be broken in transit, Hilkemann said.

But if FDA requires stronger seals as part of its regulations, that actually may be beneficial to carriers, Peetz said.

“If they would mandate a cable seal as a minimum, that may be good,” he said. Cable seals are strong and not as subject to vandalism or accidental breakage, so there is a smaller chance it could be broken.

C.R. England also has integrated temperature monitoring into its trailer-tracking system, providing real-time temperature readings to the carrier’s offices throughout the journey, Pronk said.

Real-time monitoring is not likely to be required under the FSMA sanitary food transportation rules, Samson said. Instead, data concerning the temperature at pickup and delivery are more likely.

“We’ve already invested pretty heavily in tracking devices for our trailers,” Pronk said. The tracking also allows C.R. England to tell when a trailer door has been opened or when a truck stops unexpectedly — actions that could compromise the safety of the food, he said.

Real-time monitoring also can tell a carrier about temperature changes in the trailer or if someone set the refrigeration unit to the wrong temperature, said Doug Lenz, director of product management and marketing at Thermo King.

“What we’re seeing now with the greater adoption of real-time monitoring solutions . . . is that they can take action ahead of time,” Lenz said. “If they’re seeing temperature excursions, or somebody’s opening a door where they’re not supposed to be opening a door, they can alert people and take proactive action.”

Beyond the regulatory compliance aspects of temperature control, the monitoring can save carriers money and improve customer satisfaction, Lenz said.

Shaffer does not use real-time tracking, Hilkemann said, but refrigeration units track the temperature throughout the journey, and the carrier can give the data to shippers if they request the information, he said.

Shaffer is considering moving toward real-time tracking as shipper demand increases, Peetz said.

When the FSMA regulations are finished, Pronk said, the trucking industry may have to work with suppliers to either develop new technology to comply with the rules or make existing technology more readily available.

C.R. England will be “pushing the manufacturers of the reefer trailers to give us standards for monitoring, not just where the equipment is, but how its temperature-control unit’s behaving and responding,” Pronk said.

It is generally difficult to judge whether a trailer’s interior is sanitary with current equipment, Pronk said, and he’d like to see some movement toward technology for that purpose.

FSMA also will require that FDA write a list of products that cannot be transported along with food. If food is transported along with these products, or if food is transported in a trailer that carried those products recently, the food will be deemed contaminated.

Hilkemann predicted that Shaffer will have little trouble with those regulations.

“Shaffer Trucking hauls almost exclusively food products, so from a customer-relationship and best-practices standpoint, we’re just not in the market to haul things on our trailer that are going to be at risk to contaminate our customers’ goods,” he said.

The list of risky products is likely to include trash and hazardous materials, Hilkemann said.

Samson said he does not predict that the sanitary transportation rules will require new technology for more fleets, but he is less certain about the section of FSMA concerning food tracking and tracing. It directs FDA to study the issue and report to Congress, opening the door to regulation or legislation on the issue.

“I don’t know if they’re going to require any technology that needs to be placed on the actual transport side, if it’s something that’s going to be going in the trucks or if it’s just going to be tracked and put in the books at the shipping side and the receiving side,” Samson said.

Tracking and tracing generally refer to the ability of each party in the food supply chain to record data about the food — including its origin, location and temperatures. Samson, who lobbied in agriculture before joining ATA in 2011, said most of the tracking and tracing responsibilities probably will fall on shippers and receivers.

“They wanted to target this act mainly toward the problem areas,” Samson said, “and what I was getting back [from FDA] was that the problem area was not on the transport of the food, but it was on the processing, shipping [and] receiving side of the food.”

Samson’s concern is that the technology required for tracking and tracing would be costly to the trucking industry.

“That’ll be something that is a concern, to make sure they don’t increase costs on the industry by mandating certain technologies be placed in those trucks,” he said.