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To avoid prosecution, comply with food regulations

Fleet executives need to ensure sanitary transportation regulations are followed.
/ Industry News & Trends /

By: Phil Sneed

When the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed five years ago, it introduced a bevy of new federal regulations the Food and Drug Administration had oversight over. Simply put, the FSMA was designed to catch foodborne illnesses before they infect large amounts of individuals, with the belief that by ensuring the entire process, from farming to consumption, is clean, mass outbreaks would be stopped before getting worse.

Part of this process involves supply, and ensuring fleets and drivers understand the importance of complying with rules set forth by the FDA. 

More regulations will add more paperwork and time spent ensuring shipments are properly secured at appropriate transportation levels and standards. But it must be noted some rules within the FSMA have yet to go into effect, but will do so in next few years. Likewise, the FDA realizes that not all fleets have the resources to immediately comply, nor will they be able to by the time the rule goes into effect.

"Executives of transportation companies may face criminal prosecution."

As a result, some rules, such as the one proposed for the sanitary transportation of human food, contain different compliance dates. Fleets cannot bank on abiding by the later dates, and will instead benefit by developing a strategy to meet compliance sooner, rather than later.

However, executives of transportation companies should also stay on top of implementation matters for the simple fact that if they don't, they may face criminal prosecution.

A new precedent
In 2009, a massive salmonella outbreak occurred in the U.S. that started at a peanut-processing plant in Virginia. The company had a total of about 90 employees and a respectable market presence by contributing approximately 2.5 percent of processed peanuts throughout the country.

But the country had long faced food health issues, and this culminated in late 2008 to early 2009 salmonella outbreak. In total, 714 individuals, including children, fell ill in 46 states. Many came down with food poisoning due to contaminated products. Unfortunately, seven individuals died because of the foodborne illness outbreak.

The outbreak subsequently led to the largest food recall in the history of the U.S. as it involved just under 4,000 products and 400 companies. To get an idea of the scope of the recall, numerous school districts pulled some supplies for school lunches. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency recalled emergency meals after some disaster victims received contaminated food, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Investigations into the matter immediately began and turned up startling results, particularly in the peanut-processing plant in Plainview, Texas. In fact, the plant never officially received a Texas health certificate and because of this oversight, was never properly inspected. Food from the Plainview plant was shipped throughout the U.S.

According to The New York Times, in 2009, the plant contained leaky roofs and unclean sections on the peanut-roasting line. One plant manager even complained about the unsanitary conditions but his pleas were ignored by Stewart Parnell, the company's owner.

The effects of the outbreak were longstanding, with Texas health officials taking the unprecedented step of recalling all of the products shipped from the Plainview plant.

Criminal prosecution
As noted by Food Safety Magazine, the federal government has now trained prosecutors to go after executives of food and transportation companies that ignore safety regulations. Parnell, for instance, was convicted in September 2014 of 71 criminal counts and on Sept. 21, 2015, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. According to The Associated Press, this was the stiffest punishment ever handed out because of a foodborne illness.

"To minimize risk, transportation companies should review current policies and procedures and adjust them accordingly."

This prosecution was possible because of the Food & Drug Cosmetic Act. This also applies to companies that are tasked with transporting food. Essentially, this law makes it illegal to transport food that has been tampered with, such as it becoming contaminated while sitting in the back of a truck.

While there may be some disagreement over the length at which the federal government is applying an existing law to cover a lot of ground, recent foodborne illness outbreaks and the subsequent criminal proceedings have set a precedence: If transportation companies do not take the time to adequately abide by rules and regulations, they can be found negligent and charged with criminal offenses in the event of an outbreak.

Prepare accordingly
In order to minimize risk, transportation companies should review current policies and procedures and adjust them accordingly. A good record system is also needed, as is a thorough employee training program.

New regulations will soon become final, and when that happens, transportation companies are expected to abide by them. The added time may be a hassle, but recent criminal cases indicate the federal government is serious about preventing foodborne illnesses.