Produce is transported using many means and by many routes. The means of conveyance may include RTP trays, pallets, shippers, dollies, roll cages and a wide range of vehicle load compartments involving dedicated, shared- user, sub-contract, hired, ambient, multi-temperature and temperature-controlled HGV vehicles.
Produce may travel from the field to a pack-house, on to a consolidation point or Distribution Centre and from there to a vast and disparate collection of small, medium and large independent and supermarket retailers. While the majority of food is purchased in-store by consumers utilising baskets or trolleys, online shoppers’ goods may be collated in trays and delivered via smaller commercial vehicles.
Keeping produce safe during transportation is a vital element within the food chain of custody and is often the last step in ensuring high quality and safe is available to the consumer whether purchased in-store or online.
Given the many different equipment types, countless vehicle journeys, cross docking and associated handling, there clearly exists very real potentials for food to become contaminated when coming in to contact with many of the surfaces involved. These potentials may well compromise carefully managed hygiene measures taken earlier in the food chain and it is therefore of critical importance that appropriate actions are taken to control microbiological contamination during food conveyance and transportation. As a minimum, surface sanitisation should be readily available to ensure that foods remain safe up to and after purchase by the consumer.
Consumers are completely reliant on the panoptic application of food safety regulation and best practice to maintain the quality levels of the food they buy and to protect them against food contamination risks.
Therefore, it might appear reasonable to assume that food producers, equipment providers, logistics and transport companies, and particularly retailers, rigorously apply and monitor vehicle and equipment food hygiene and regulatory compliance.
It is of significant and growing concern that this is far from the case.
Recent research confirms that too many equipment, logistics and transport service providers are unaware of and unconcerned about both their regulatory food safety obligations and basic food transport hygiene requirements.
It is entirely unacceptable that the excellent audited standards achieved by growers and producers earlier in the chain should be compromised by consistent failures in the food transportation phase. Such failures to uphold food safety obligations clearly places the quality of food and the consumer at increased risk.
Picture a grower who invests in and applies food safe standards throughout his business. He provides hygienic protective wear for employees, is regularly and strictly audited by his clients and is justly proud of the high-quality products his company produces. It is highly possible this grower could receive contaminated trays, pallets or roll-cages in which to pack his produce. These could well be delivered by a contaminated vehicle. When filled the trays, pallets or roll-cages could be collected by a different contaminated vehicle which may be part of a 3PL fleet or a diverted sub-contract vehicle. The vehicle’s previous load may have been fertilizer, raw meat or waste packaging. No questions will have been asked. No records of any hygienic cleaning will be available and no record of prior loads maintained, yet these are regulatory requirements.
It is extraordinary that retailer’s internal and external audit processes do not hold equipment providers, logistics and transport companies to the same food safe standards they require from growers and producers. Retailers and enforcement authorities appear to tolerate a lower standard of hygiene or evidence of diligence from these service providers, alarmingly ignoring the clear opportunity for food quality impairment, accelerated food spoilage and increased consumer risk.
There appears to be no requirement for the quality and safety of food to be upheld by adherence to regulatory and best practice standards in the transportation phase. Many food conveyance and transport activities are totally uncontrolled and operate outside food safety laws.
Arguably certain logistics driven initiatives now operate in direct contravention of food safety legislation, potentially increasing consumer risk on a daily basis.
For well over ten years we have seen the uninhibited use of food delivery vehicles for the back-loading of waste from retail stores on a monumental scale. It is incomprehensible that the retailers or transport operators involved would not be aware that waste products, contaminated plastics, cardboard and out-of- date foodstuffs have a high propensity to contaminate the next full load of food on that vehicle. It is a basic and non-negotiable regulatory requirement that where such practices exist vehicles must be sanitised between loads. Currently only one major UK retailer is known to be compliant in this area.
The regulations are simple. If a vehicle designated to carry food then carries a non-food load, this load is regarded as a potential contaminant and food safety regulations require that the vehicle must be sanitised before it carries food again. This common-sense regulatory requirement is designed to ensure vehicles have not carried previous cargoes that may contaminate produce.
Research studies show that the deterioration of produce is hugely accelerated by the presence of yeast and mould spores on equipment or vehicle surfaces yet the very nature of vehicle load areas make them an ideal harbor for such contaminants. Properly sanitised equipment and vehicle cargo areas will not only uphold produce quality but will help prevent the contamination and deterioration of produce in transit, thereby increasing the life-cycle.
There is a reasonable expectation that companies who hold themselves out as having expertise and specialist capabilities in equipment management, logistics support activities and food transportation should, as a minimum, be able to demonstrate appropriate levels of food safe best practice and regulatory awareness throughout their management teams.
All food related equipment, logistics and transport service providers should understand contamination risks and demonstrate an awareness and capability of how they provide protection and prevention measures.
Ideally a robust food transportation policy focused on produce safety should be developed. Such a policy should include requirements for all transportation vehicles in all given situations, to include sub-contract vehicles and the necessity to maintain records of prior loads for all vehicles. The necessity to include hired and sub-contract delivery vehicles further illustrates the common-sense nature of food safe transportation requirements.
The services provided by equipment, logistics and transport service providers may be varied in type and disparate in nature but all stakeholders within the food supply chain play a vital and inescapable role in complying with common-sense food safety guidelines and regulatory requirements. The guidelines are simple common-sense and the regulations simply designed to reduce food wastage, optimise food quality and protect consumers.
The increased risk of serious and widespread food-borne illness outbreaks caused by poor food transport practices is staring us in the face.