As if dealing with a recession and stricter emissions standards weren't enough, carriers of fresh fruits and vegetables must also find ways to meet customers' new food safety demands.
While the transportation industry is more than willing to do its share to make sure the nation's supply of fresh produce is safe, it's also looking for more of a hand from its supply chain partners.
The heightened importance of food safety in the fresh produce industry has made extra work for truckers, said Kerry Byrne, executive vice president of third-party logistics specialist Total Quality Logistics, Cincinnati.
And for the most part, they've made the adjustment, he said, whether they've wanted to or not.
"My perspective is it's definitely creating additional burdens, but carriers and drivers are doing a pretty darned good job of dealing with it," Byrne said.
Making sure no one gets into trucks while they're en route from shipper to receiver has been the primary food safety focus, he said.
"The number one thing has been the integrity of the seal," Byrne said. "Carriers didn't used to have to deal with it, but they do now."
One key to effective traceability is giving truckers and carriers a seat at the table and cooperating with them on possible solutions, rather than just telling them what they need to do, said Kenny Lund, vice president of operations for Allen Lund Co. Inc., La Canada, Calif.
"It's working with transportation providers, not putting unrealistic expectations on them," he said.
There are about half a million transportation providers in the U.S., Lund said, and the average one has a fleet of seven trucks.
Expecting so many small companies to upgrade their fleets with GPS systems and other technologies aimed at improving traceability and overall food safety excellence is unrealistic, he said.
"You can't rely on a fragmented carrier pool," he said.
One solution Lund said the industry should pin its hopes on is a portable device, provided by shippers, that would stay with individual loads, transmitting location, temperature and possibly even humidity information digitally - and checked every five hours.
Such devices could retail for as little as $35, Lund predicted.
"The great thing is, the technology is there," he said. "Now it's just a matter of who wants to pay for it."
Another bright spot on the food safety scene is the rising standards for refrigerated units, Lund said.
"The equipment continues to get better and better," he said. "There aren't nearly as mainly claims on temperature."
Chuck Nelson, president of Chuck's Transport Inc., San Antonio, agreed with Lund that stricter food-safety requirements, while obviously necessary, are unworkable if all links in the supply chain don't come together.
"People pay more attention now to trucks being locked when they arrive, but it's hard to get people on the same page on how to seal trucks," he said.
Also, Nelson said, there's not much of a happy medium when it comes to properly sealing trucks.
"There are those who do well, and those who don't participate at all," he said.
As a result, many loads are rejected at retail because the shipper, the transporter and the receiver never agreed on a proper protocol.
Another place heightened attention to food safety in the transportation industry is being felt is ports, said Doug Stoiber, vice president of produce transportation operations for L&M Transportation Services Inc., a division of L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C.
Drivers are beginning to be certified through the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, a federal program administered by the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"It's still a bit of a shakeout process, but it will be in all the ports, sooner rather than later," he said.
The program requires all truckers, dockworkers and anyone else involved in loading or unloading vessels to carry a special ID granting them access, Stoiber said.
"It's absolutely a good thing for homeland security," he said. "It's not a lot of red tape for us, though there is more for owner-operators."
In addition, Stoiber agreed with his industry colleagues that sealed loads are becoming increasingly important to shippers and receivers.
And deliveries are much more coordinated in advance and more controlled than in the past, he said.
"The old days of backing down and hollering for someone to come and get their load are over," he said.