With the temperature topping 90 degrees in July, state police patrolling Interstate 69 pulled over a truck delivering meat and produce to Huntington and Logansport restaurants.
During a nearly three-hour inspection, a health official found chicken and pork at temperatures far above health safety limits; raw vegetables and mushrooms also were contaminated.
A malfunctioning refrigeration unit was blamed. The temperature in the truck was nearly 80 degrees, almost twice the 41 degrees considered safe, according to a report by the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.
The food – 12 boxes of chicken, five boxes of mushrooms and three boxes of pork rolls – was ordered destroyed.
While the vast majority of refrigerated trucks pass inspection, “hot trucks” have heightened awareness of food transport in Indiana, which has gained a national reputation for pursuing violators.
State troopers in the west-central part of the state have been particularly aggressive in citing trucks for food violations. Media “ride-alongs” with troopers disclosed widespread incidents of questionable food heading to restaurants.
Allen County has had more than 15 inspections in the last year, though only one – the July 23 stop on southbound I-69 between Coldwater and Auburn roads – resulted in violations.
That might change.
State police are currently determining where troopers should be trained in basic food handling to provide a statewide approach to what Indiana State Police Capt. Wayne Andrews calls a serious health problem.
“It’s one of our priorities right now to get that northeast sector of the state a little more bolstered,” said Andrews, assistant commander of the agency’s commercial vehicle enforcement division.
Because bacteria can grow in food kept at high temperatures – causing illness or death – hot delivery trucks are an important health issue.
A state law that took effect in July allows state police to issue a Class A infraction with a maximum $10,000 fine for food that’s 2 degrees above the acceptable temperature, that appears spoiled or risks cross-contamination for being improperly loaded.
Indiana is the only state to give troopers such authority, Andrews said. Before the law change, if a local health department official was unavailable to make those determinations the truck was released.
“That’s what’s scary, and that’s what we just couldn’t live with,” Andrews said.
Of the roughly 640 food truck inspections between October 2011, and July 31 of this year, 22 were referred to health departments for enforcement action, according to Indiana State Police records. Food violations are listed on 15 of the reports.
Of those 15, nine were in the adjacent counties of Clinton and Tippecanoe.
“The guys, particularly in the Lafayette area, really, really focused in on it. They just enjoyed getting them, because they’d see so much of it,” Andrews said. “We have concentrations of violators around the Bloomington area and around the Lafayette area. I’m sure we have them in the Fort Wayne area as well.”
Sgt. Ron Galaviz, spokesman for the Fort Wayne ISP post, said local troopers aren’t stopping trucks just to inspect food shipments.
“As they’re doing their inspection they’re looking for a multitude of things, obviously a number of different violations, and they’re also looking for telltale signs,” he said. “If they stop a refrigerated truck and the driver hustles out of the truck to start the refrigeration unit, that’s a red flag; … why is he doing that now?”
Tom Didier, who works for a large food distribution company, said there is a noticeable difference between big distributors and small ones. Large companies, he said, have safety guidelines to protect public health by not cutting corners.
“When you’re messing with food, you’re messing with people’s lives,” said Didier, who is also a Fort Wayne city councilman. “They’re trusting that you are going to be selling them quality food so that they are not going to get sick.”
No local or statewide illnesses have been linked to hot trucks, which Andrews acknowledges would be a difficult connection to make. After food is delivered it is the restaurant’s responsibility. It’s Andrews’ suspicion that food is sometimes tainted en route to various sites and the farmer is blamed.
The new law allows troopers trained by health professionals to conduct the inspections; essentially 85 troopers in Andrews’ division could be given that responsibility.
Vendors can be jailed for delivering food the state has told them to dump, but in nearly all cases state police witness the disposal, Andrews said.
In the Allen County hot truck case, landfills were closed, and the health department ordered the vendor, Q&G Trading Co., to fax proof that the shipment had been destroyed. In a letter to the department, the company said it disposed of the food the day after the stop. Included were pictures of boxes in what appeared to be a large trash bin.
“We will definitely take care of this issue in the future so that it will not happen again,” the letter states.
The company does not have any other violations listed among ISP inspections for a 10-month period scrutinized by the newspaper. Q&G Trading General Manager Chen Liu, who signed the letter, did not return phone messages left at his business by The Journal Gazette.
State police started seriously looking at the hot truck issue in 2006, Andrews said. A Bloomington vendor who continually circumvented laws was of particular concern. Police met with health officials to develop a plan.
After more and more stops, state police started to identify the typical violator in terms of vehicle and markings, Andrews said.
“As the fuel prices started to increase over the last few years from 2 bucks a gallon up to 4 bucks a gallon for diesel, problems were just spreading like wildfire,” he added.
To save on fuel costs, trucks with refrigerator units were not using them; others were not bothering to measure food temperatures.
Then last year, Indianapolis TV station WTHR Channel 13 broadcast an investigative piece after riding along with troopers stopping food trucks. In one segment, Andrews described the problem as “quite prevalent” and “a huge issue.”
WTHR detailed an inspection in which “About 1,500 pounds of food headed to restaurants in the Fort Wayne area was removed from the hot truck and taken to a landfill.”
With health officials, state police were successful in pushing for the new law. Since then, Andrews has been on NBC’s “Today” show twice profiling Indiana’s initiative.
But even with the new law, troopers face potential criticism, not the least of which is interfering with day-to-day commerce.
Many vendors, several with violations, are from countries with lax health regulations, Andrews said. The inspection process, he added, has been refined to avoid profiling. In addition, health officials – who are still called to inspect if potential violations are found – complain, their budgets have limited room to do that regularly, Andrews said. They can’t keep up with the current number of inspections, he noted.
The problem is recognized locally.
“Obviously, state police don’t have the manpower to pull over every truck and check, and our department doesn’t have the resources to do that sort of check for every delivery,” said John Silcox, spokesman for Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health. “But the restaurants themselves need to make sure they’re doing that due diligence when they receive these shipments. And they can always reject that shipment if they find there are some reasons to be concerned.”
King’s Garden Buffet in Huntington was a destination for the Q&G Trading Co. truck before it was stopped in Allen County, according to the health inspection.
Dean Howell, a friend of the family that owns the restaurant, said he was unaware of the incident. Howell said he doesn’t work at the restaurant but helps out because the owners speak little English.
Food that is supposed to be frozen arrives frozen and the meat always looks good, Howell said of deliveries he has seen. Nothing, he added, has caused him concern.
“I’m real particular about a lot of things,” Howell said, “but food I’m most particular about.”