Problems and Vulnerabilities
While food safety is a priority for every reputable distributor, it’s often taken for granted by customers. Maintaining the cold chain from farm to fork is challenging. The average shipment—both inbound, from supplier to distribution center, and especially outbound to customers—consists of less-than-truckload quantities of food products. The number of products delivered to a customer can be in the hundreds. Each of these products must be loaded correctly to prevent cross-contamination with raw product and damage by heavier items at the bottom of a stack. And they must be stored at the correct temperatures (frozen, refrigerated or dry) in the truck to maintain quality and safety. The food has to retain its chill throughout the multi-stop delivery process, especially in the heat of summer when the “reefers” (truck refrigeration units) have to work extra-hard to maintain temperature. In other words, there is plenty of opportunity for error.
Although food distribution companies must adhere to government regulations calling for greater food protection scrutiny (e.g., the Bioterrorism Act of 2002), enforcement is rare. On the supplier front, over-extended government food inspections run by FDA, USDA and state regulatory agencies continue to lag in both coverage and accuracy, as evidenced by the recent foodborne illness outbreak traced back to one less-than-scrupulous peanut processing company.
“Customers should be aware of the food safety differences between distributors, especially in a down economy when many are making choices based on price,” says Greg Pallaske, director of regulatory compliance for food safety and quality assurance, U.S. Foodservice. “That’s why it’s so important to evaluate the food safety policies and procedures and operations of your foodservice distribution company.”
Frank Ferko, U.S. Foodservice’s head of distribution food safety and quality assurance, agrees. “Most people are inward-looking when it comes to food safety,” says Ferko, who has more than 33 years of experience in the restaurant, food processing and distribution businesses. “If you’re in manufacturing, you worry about food quality at your facility. If you’re at a restaurant, you worry about your kitchen. That doesn’t mean you can assume other areas are fully on target.”