Overheated Food Trucks Raise Red Flags in Indiana

In recent weeks, “hot trucks” have made headlines as Indiana State Police found numerous food transport trucks driving with improper refrigeration for their loads.

A new Indiana law that took effect in July makes it a class A infraction to transport food that is more than two degrees above the acceptable temperature, that shows outward signs of contamination or spoilage or that is loaded in a way that risks cross-contamination.

David Drinan, chief of the Tippecanoe County Health Department’s foods division, said the Indiana State Department of Health has been pushing for this law since 2007. It has done so because the law enhances food safety during transport by requiring law enforcement and public health agencies to make a coordinated response.

The ISDH recommends that certain perishable and potentially hazardous foods be kept at certain temperatures. Milk and dairy products, for example, are supposed to be kept at 45 degrees.

But Drinan said on some occasions when the police have called him in to assist, temperatures have been as high as 69, where opportunity is ripe for bacteria growth and other forms of contamination.

News of the hot trucks raised red flags for many consumers and should put restaurant owners and store managers on higher alert, Drinan said.

While police have been catching many of these trucks after pulling them over for other suspected violations, Drinan pointed out there are still more that slip through the cracks.

Data from Indiana State Police’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement unit show there were 781 food enforcement stops from Oct. 1, 2011, through July 31. Of those, 38 inspections were done within Tippecanoe County and two temperature violations on food loads were reported.

George Vasilarakis, general manager of Red Seven Bar and Grill in downtown Lafayette, understands the concern, but he’s not worried about the quality of his restaurant’s food.

“Our vendors are pretty good,” he said.

Vasilarakis said if one of the trucks that deliver food to the Red Seven breaks down, Performance Food Service, their vendor, will “send a whole new delivery.”

The state health code requires restaurant owners to check the temperature of food upon delivery, but Drinan said “they do not have to document whether or not they’re doing it.”

And even if an owner does check to make sure a product is at the correct temperature, sometimes it has not been transported at that temperature the whole time.

Drinan said some truck drivers will wait until they are a certain distance from a restaurant and then turn the refrigeration unit on. That way, the food is cold enough to appear it’s been kept at regulation temperature the whole time.

“The problem is, you have what we call `time temperature abuse’ of these products,” he said.

He said other problems can arise when food is being loaded or if food is encased in plastic wrap before being cooled. For example, he said food can be compromised if it is allowed to sit outside a walk-in cooler while being loaded onto the truck, as it is supposed to be kept at 41 degrees throughout the loading process.

Food also is at a greater risk for bacteria growth if it is covered in plastic wrap before it cools, Drinan said. This is because while the wrap protects the food from being damaged, it doesn’t allow cool air to penetrate, so the food remains warm.

Drinan’s advice for restaurant owners: Don’t accept food deliveries between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., or during any other busy times, especially if the driver offers to help move it to your walk-in cooler.

“I tell people that’s a red flag. That ought to tell you that he’s got something wrong with the cooler on his truck,” he said. “Don’t hesitate to reject all or part of the shipment.”

Jerry Hadley, manager of the Arni’s near Columbian Park, said he inspects food deliveries himself.

“I see them three times a week and they’re all good,” he said.