Sysco case spotlights cold chain vigilance

07/18/2013 04:58:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Sysco Corp. has ended use of unrefrigerated storage units in northern California after video by NBC Bay Area showed employees leaving fresh produce and other perishable foods there for hours prior to delivery.

“Syscov San Francisco’s drop-site practices in the Bay Area were not compliant with company policy,” Charley Wilson, vice president of corporate communications at Houston-based Sysco, said in a statement. “We reviewed with Sysco San Francisco our policy, and they have taken immediate corrective action.”

That policy requires refrigeration at all times.

The broadcaster’s surveillance cameras showed drivers making overnight drop-offs of chicken, pork, beef, bacon, milk and vegetables to metal sheds in San Jose, San Francisco and Concord.

The report prompted visits by California Department of Public Health inspectors in the second week of July. They went to 14 sheds not designed to store food, a department spokesman told The Packer.

The exposure of the practice called new attention to the broader issue of breaks in the cold chain’s final links — whether product is left unrefrigerated at an intermediate site just before final delivery, as in Sysco’s case, or at a restaurant before business hours.

In the foodservice industry when a salesman makes final delivery — instead of a driver — he normally picks up the order at a distribution center rather than a drop site, said Doug Stoiber, vice president of produce transportation operations for L&M Transportation Services, Raleigh, N.C.

“In all the situations I’ve been in, a salesperson would usually have to come in to the distribution center, sign an invoice and take the product to the customer,” Stoiber said. “That happens when there’s a shortage on a truck or a customer needs a favor.”

“It’s not a common practice,” he said, referring to use of smaller sites. “I don’t know Sysco San Francisco’s operation. It’s probably not the only place it happens.”

Stoiber is more familiar with incidents of deliveries left unrefrigerated at their final destinations.

“I heard about Sysco and thought about the number of times distributors’ trucks leave refrigerated and frozen produce at an unrefrigerated storage area for a customer who isn’t open yet,” he said. “Winter or summer, the truck leaves everything in a designated spot. It’s not common, but it happens with the owner’s agreement.”

“Sysco won’t let it go on,” Stoiber said of the apparent violations in San Francisco. “They will probably have a top-to-bottom review of all their distribution centers and where they’re leaving products. And other distributors who were lucky enough not to have the camera pointed at their product are going to react pretty quickly, too, to make sure the practice doesn’t exist. Because maintaining the cold chain is absolutely essential for food safety in a heightened food safety atmosphere.”

Earlier in his career, Stoiber worked for Sysco Corp.

Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Salinas, Calif.-based Church Bros. LLC, said his company’s cold chain education efforts with customers happen daily.

“This particular incident that the media got wind of is a good reminder for the trade that you’ve got to keep it cold,” Van Eeghen said. “There certainly are people who are not watching this as carefully as they should.”

Tim York, president of Salinas-based foodservice company Markon Cooperative Inc., saw the episode as an aberration for Sysco.

“Sysco is very well-run and well-managed,” York said. “They did not get to be a $40 billion company by making this a standard operating practice.”

“On social media lately we’ve seen a Taco Bell employee licking a taco shell and a Golden Corral restaurant employee showing product being stored outside,” York said. “I look at those as unfortunate but isolated incidents. It’s not standard practice for Sysco let alone other quality foodservice distributors.”

Still, Sysco’s misstep was reason enough to revisit the topic of food safety within the group of eight broadline foodservice companies that comprise Markon Cooperative.

“We reminded our members about the critical link they are,” York said. “It underscored that cold chain management and food safety practices are a total supply chain responsibility.”

Sysco contacted clients whose product had been in the sheds, Wilson said in his statement.

“We are taking the precautionary measure with those affected customers to withdraw all products from the supply chain that had moved through the non-compliant Bay Area drop-sites,” he said. “These customers are being asked to examine their inventory and dispose of the identified products. In these instances, their accounts will be credited accordingly.”

“Sysco’s first priority is our commitment to provide safe, quality-assured products to our customers,” according to his statement.

Inspectors found rat droppings, insects and other unsanitary conditions inside the sheds, according to NBC Bay Area.

State health officials declined to comment on possible penalties. Sysco could face misdemeanor criminal charges and a $1,000 fine for each violation.



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