Follow the food

Part one of a special investigation
September 23, 2009 9:54:41 PM PDT
Time and temperature play a huge role in food poisoning. That's why refrigerated trucks or coolers are critical to getting food to restaurants safely.

Yet, we discovered throughout the region, there are restaurant owners taking big risks with the health of their customers.

It's enough to make you sick: perishable foods being tossed into the back of trunks, blistering hot vans, and open pick-up trucks. We spent weeks undercover watching one food retailer after another load up their vehicles with all sorts of temperature-sensitive foods from fresh chicken and hamburger to raw seafood and boxes of milk and cartons of eggs.

We watched as food retailers operated in what the U.S. Agriculture Department calls the danger zone, where bacteria grows rapidly in unrefrigerated food.

Undercover in Westchester County, we record as perishables are packed into a van starting around 2:30 in the afternoon, including milk, eggs, raw fish. We follow the van. It's first stop to get gas before crossing into Connecticut, where it gets caught in heavy traffic. At 3:37, it arrives outside a Greenwich caterer where workers begin unloading. Using an infra-red thermometer, I'm able to record a temperature inside the van of 96-degrees. Sprouts and sour cream clearly visible in the baking sun. Then at 4:01, workers and the restaurant owner are unloading the rest of the food at a small restaurant around the corner -- after more than 90 minutes exposed in the extreme heat.

When I told the chef about the risk of food poisoning, he insisted that they are careful.

Even after seeing our surveillance video, the chef insists he handles all his food safely.

HOFFER: There's fish, no ice no cooler just placed in your van, it's 90 degrees outside. You're stopping for gas, 90 degrees, we follow you for 18 miles on 1-95.
CHEF: I don't know the purpose of your visit.
HOFFER: The purpose is why would you be transporting in a hot unrefrigerated van perishable food.
CHEF: We don't do it, I tell you we don't do it.
HOFFER: What do you say about this?
CHEF: Yeah, but this once out of 50, 60 times.
HOFFER: So this is just a rare thing we caught you doing.
CHEF: Yes, yes.

Hardly rare. Instead, we found the unsafe transporting of food by restaurants routine. In New Jersey, we watched as boxes of chicken and beef get loaded onto a cart inside the store. It is then set aside and sits there at room temperature for more than 30 minutes. Eventually, it's loaded into the back of a pick-up truck, along with gallons of milk. We follow the truck for 30 minutes and when it finally reaches the restaurant in Elizabeth, it's been two hours since the food has been out of refrigeration. Half that time was spent in 92-degree heat.

When we showed our video to the restaurant's manager, Karen Weber seemed in denial.

HOFFER: How do you explain all the boxes of beef and chicken delivered on the back of the pickup truck?
MANAGER: What I'm telling you is it was freeze.
HOFFER: You're saying it was frozen.
MANAGER: It was frozen.

But our undercover video clearly shows the meat is fresh, not frozen.

One of the nation's leading food safety scientists says our investigation shows a widespread practice of transporting food unsafely.

"This is not an acceptable practice, said Donald Schaffner of Rutgers University. "The danger is that as you keep these foods out of temperature control and as you keep them out for longer periods of time there is the possibility of food spoiling, but even worse there is the possibility that harmful bacteria can grow to greater numbers and the more pathogens the higher your risk of food poisoning."

Restaurant Depot, (a big wholesale chain) has its own guidelines for transporting perishable foods. It "highly recommends" to "not exceed one hour at room temperature," which is why they urge their customers to use refrigerated vans or, at the very least, pack the food on ice.

But our investigation seems to suggest that most are ignoring these safety guidelines and instead are transporting food by, in one case, stuffing it in a van with boxes of chicken, crab meat, fish and huge slabs of raw meat, then head for home. In this case, a 26 mile trip was slowed by construction that finally ended at a restaurant in Westchester County. It's 92 degrees as the unloading begins. The clock was still ticking at two hours.

HOFFER: These people work for you, correct?
CRAIG PURDY: Yeah, yeah.
HOFFER: What happened? 92 degrees, no coolers, no ice?
PURDY: It's not normal operating procedure. It's just one off.

What we discovered is that no one is monitoring this. It is a part of the restaurant business that is off the radar of both the health and agriculture departments.

But it is clearly a statewide problem that the Rutgers Food Safety expert says should be a top priority of health officials in both states.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com.

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