Raw meat, perishables being left in hot cars on the way to restaurants

BOSTON — 25 Investigates observed dozens of Boston area restaurant owners and employees purchasing meat, fish and shellfish over several days in July, including one day when the temperature reached 96 degrees.

Our investigation found several people who appeared to be violating state regulations designed to prevent foodborne illness.

The Restaurant Depot in Everett is a popular place for people in the food service industry to stock up on supplies.  It’s like a BJ’s or Costco but for restaurants only. The Restaurant Depot sells perishables at appropriate temperatures from a massive walk-in freezer. The safety of the food becomes the buyer’s responsibility as soon as it leaves the store.

On July 12, when the recorded high temperature was 82 degrees in Everett, we watched one Restaurant Depot shopper bring out a large hunk of packaged raw meat on top of a shopping cart. He left the meat on the cart for about 15 minutes in the heat while he chatted with a store employee. He then loaded the meat and other food into a non-refrigerated van. There was no sign of any ice or coolers. 25 Investigates followed the van to a restaurant in Chelsea where the meat sat for another 15 minutes before it was unloaded.

On July 30, when the high in Everett reached 96 degrees, we saw a group of customers load large packages of ground beef and pork into the open bed of a pick-up truck.  The meat was exposed to the sun and scorching temperatures as the pick-up pulled away.

Later that same day, our cameras recorded another shopper load a van with large bags of frozen turkey, chicken and pork.  He also bought several boxes of frozen fish. The man left the perishables in his van with the doors and windows shut and returned to the store to finish his shopping.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, when temperatures outside range from 80 degrees to 100 degrees, the temperature inside a car parked in direct sunlight can quickly climb to between 130 to 172 degrees.

We followed the van to a family restaurant in Chelsea. The owner claimed all the food he bought was still ice-cold, but he declined to let us test it with a meat thermometer.

Perishables are supposed be temperature controlled even during transportation. When meat warms above 41 degrees it increases the chances of developing contaminants that cause food poisoning. 
With names like Ciguatera, Campylobacter enteritis and Cyclosporiasis the different forms of foodborne illness can be a mouthful, but you don't need a medical degree to understand the symptoms can be awful. It often leads to dizziness, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

"It affects as many as 1 in 6 people every year. Almost certainly every year we have deaths from foodborne illnesses," said Dr. Larry Madoff, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the state Department of Public Health.

According to Dr. Madoff summer is the high season for foodborne illness. Last month Massachusetts and 10 other states declared an outbreak of cyclosporiasis, an illness linked to contaminated produce.

The retail food code does not prohibit restaurants from purchasing food and transporting it in private vehicles if perishables are kept at safe temperatures.  Seafood is the exception. It must always be properly refrigerated.

Our investigation found very little oversight of food transportation in private vehicles. The state Department of Public Health told us the person transporting the food is entirely responsible for following state and federal guidelines.