September 13, 2010 7:45 AM, EDT

Industry Groups Wary of Plan from FDA on Food Transport

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Trade groups representing the food, shipping and trucking industries have voiced caution and opposition to a plan by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create a potentially sweeping array of regulations governing safe food transportation practices.

In a Federal Register posting earlier this year, the FDA requested detailed information from those involved in food transportation so it could better understand practices and preventive controls in the transport of food, particularly “problem areas” that pose microbiological, chemical and/or physical safety hazards to food.

“Over the past few decades, there have been persistent concerns about the potential that food might become contaminated during transportation; however, only a limited number of such events have been documented,” the FDA said.

In its notice, the FDA said it could find only six events over 36 years that involved food that became or had the potential to become contaminated during transportation. However, the agency said it must respond to a 2005 congressional mandate to focus on prevention of food safety problems “throughout the food chain.”

The notice did not detail precisely what regulations the agency is considering.

Pointing to the FDA’s admission of little concrete evidence of widespread problems, groups involved in the transport of food said the industry already utilizes safe food practices, in some cases already is regulated, and that new regulations are not needed.

“The fact that no events involving the supermarket industry can be cited by the agency is a testament to the effectiveness of existing industry practices,” Erik Lieberman, regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, said in Aug. 30 written comments. “A typical distribution center facility ships in excess of 545,000 cases of product every week and more than 47 million pounds of food every four weeks.”

In its comments to the agency, American Trucking Associations said it fears the FDA is headed for an impracticable “one-size-fits-all set of regulatory requirements governing food transportation,” which it said would not improve the safe transportation of food in the United States.

Richard Moskowitz, ATA’s vice president and regulatory affairs counsel, wrote in Aug. 30 comments that the nation’s “food transportation system is the envy of the world.”

Moskowitz said that food shippers, and not motor carriers, are in the best position to determine appropriate food transportation methods.

Mark Mignogna, vice president for quality control at Sysco Corp., the food products distributor, said any new FDA regulations should concentrate on ensuring that current food transport practices are followed.

“FDA should not, however, promulgate a separate regulatory scheme governing the transportation of food that incorporates standards that are so explicit they undercut the flexibility necessary for the industry to develop effective controls tailored to the requirements of their individual operations and their specific customer base,” Mignogna stated.

John Conley, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, agreed.

“The almost minuscule number of incidents involving tank truck transportation of food products resulting in injury or death to the public demonstrates that the current industry practices and regulatory regime is working well,” Conley stated. “If the FDA determines that some form of regulatory expansion is needed to better protect the public, then those regulations should be based on what currently has proven so successful.”

Some who commented, such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, suggested that the agency use a “risk-based” regulatory approach, since most food products transported by dry vans are individually wrapped, packaged foods in boxes, jars or cans.

“Accordingly, there is no need for FDA involvement in the transportation of these food products, unless they must be refrigerated,” wrote James Johnston, OOIDA’s president.

The American Bakers Association, like several other trade groups, suggested that enforcement of current practices and regulations would be the best way to enhance food transport safety.

“Given that the transportation-related food safety risks identified in the advanced rulemaking are already violations of existing law, we submit that the most efficient way to address potential food safety risks in the transport of food is by strengthening enforcement of existing requirements and, where necessary, promoting compliance through issuance of food transportation guidance developed jointly by industry and FDA,” the Bakers Association wrote.