All the practical implications of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (now Public Law 111-353) are not yet spelled out when it comes to the trucking industry. What is clear, however, is that the new law, if it withstands post-enactment efforts by opponents still seeking revisions and/or financing cuts, will further tighten federal control over the transportation of food - from equipment and procedures to traceability and accountability.

Section 111 of the new law, for instance, requires the Health and Human Services secretary to “promulgate regulations onsanitary transportation practices for the transportationof food,” and also requires theFDA (Food and Drug Administration) “to conduct a study on the transportation of food, including the unique needs of rural and frontier areas.”

Section 204 requires the Health and Human Services secretary to “improve tracking and tracing of processed foods and fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak; and establish standards for the type of information, format, and time frame for persons to submit records to aid the secretary in such tracking and tracing.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act is, by no means, the first and only move to help assure that food remains safe to eat from farm to the fork. Shippers of some cargo, like perishable food and pharmaceuticals, have been asking fleets to step up and assume additional responsibility for the integrity and safety of their cargo for some time.

They are and have been requiring carriers to deploy technology to help assure the integrity and safety of their goods and, in the case of temperature-controlled food for instance, also help to reduce spoilage and loss. The shippers’ customers’ in this case are the ones holding the whip handle, according to Dr. John Ryan, president of Ryan Systems. Ryan has spent over 25 years implementing high-technology quality control systems and is credited with piloting the first farm-to-fork, Internet-enabled food traceability system using sensors and RFID technology to help get the job done.

“Mostly, the suppliers’ customers are the ones who want to know the data about the perishables they are paying for,” he says. “They are driving this because they are the ones on the front line facing the customer, the end user. Their message is plain: You are responsible for what you are shipping to me.”

The good news, according to Ryan, is that technologies are available that are equal to the task.

“Technology is actually pretty good,” he says. “You can use sensors to get temperature readings at the pallet level and you can use GPS to track the load and cellular technology to transmit the temperature data in real time. We can also use sensors to detect tampering or find explosives. There is a lot of new sensor technology coming on line now,” Ryan adds, “which will provide real-time visibility to a number of other variables.

It is not just food safety and liability issues that are driving the need for better cargo-specific information, he notes. Food spoilage in transit is also “a huge issue.” Approximately 5 to 7% of food is lost in transit. In this case, using technology to monitor temperature and to optimize cargo loading and routing can be a big help.

“Produce with the shortest shelf life should be delivered first and through the shortest route,” Ryan notes, “in order to give that retailer the most shelf life possible. Technology makes that doable.”

Ryan lists three primary technologies on his solutions list: “RFID (Identification, Location and Condition ), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Messaging Service (GMS) and new sensing technologies, that can add real-time status reports in terms of “on-time delivery of goods, global positioning, in-transit temperatures, humidity, shock, acceleration, tampering, explosive detection, contamination detection, pre-notification for port authorities, while providing e-mail or cell phone alerts for out-of-control conditions.”

In his article called, “Quantum Traceability,” Ryan notes that, “These technological changes represent a major breakthrough for the food safety and food quality arenas in terms of reducing (or appropriately assigning) recall liabilities, providing longer shelf life and higher quality to buyers, while meeting governmental transportation control requirements.” These tougher standards will apply to food from home or from far away—food transported along local and relatively short supply chains or along global chains that wrap around the world.

As a general rule, most citizens don’t presently worry much about the safety of eating every pickle and chip, each salad and crust. At home or away, Americans graze unfazed on food from around the globe. There is asparagus from Peru, coffee from Africa and farm-raised shrimp from Bangladesh. Ginger makes its way from China to meet up with onions and peppers from Mexico in a tasty stir fry with lamb from New Zealand. Although dinner may have traveled farther than the diner will in a lifetime, it goes unremarked.

One reason diners don’t usually have to be concerned is because so many others have been doing the fussing for them, watching over temperatures and worrying about contamination (accidental or intentional). Motor carriers involved in the transport of food, however, may find still more responsibilities on their plates in the future. It is definitely something to chew on.