6 Tips for Maintaining Food Safety in Rail Transit

Rail is a reliable shipping mode for many different types of materials, including food. Maintaining food safety during this process is essential. Knowing what to look out for and what to expect can help new food shippers maintain food safety and the quality of their products.

6 Tips for Maintaining Food Safety in Rail Transit

Approximately 1.6 million carloads of food travel across the US every year. The majority of this is raw materials, including 413,000 carloads of corn syrup, flour, animal feed and other grain products, 239,000 carloads of soybean meal and soybean oil, and 235,000 carloads of beverages and extracts. Keeping these products safe in transit requires diligence and attention to detail on the part of shippers, their customers and transload facility staff.

1. Detailed and Accurate Bills of Lading

As food shipments make their way from origin to destination, the bill of lading gives transload facility staff an accurate description of what’s in each car. These documents make it easy to verify that each car is carrying the right materials, in the right quantity. Providing detailed and accurate information on the bill of lading helps to make inspections go smoothly.

If the bill of lading is frequently mismarked or the wrong documents accompany the wrong shipment, take a closer look at your documentation process. The wrong product description, railcar numbers, weights, seal numbers, or PO numbers on the bill of lading will inevitably cause delays. Make this process as accurate as possible to keep railcars moving swiftly and maintain food safety along the way.

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2. Thorough Inspection Process

A thorough inspection process at each leg of the journey helps to maintain food safety for all types of food products. This process should be clear, well-documented, and communicated to all inspectors across the rail line. Shippers know their product best, and they are in the best position to design an efficient testing and inspection process. Shippers are also into the best position to assess threats to product quality in their HACCP plan.

Clearly define all inspection procedures, including the tests needed to verify product quality, and the acceptable limits of the test results. Also, pay close attention to a transload facility’s inspection process, and integrate these inspection steps where possible. Though shippers know their product best, facility staff may have a better understanding of the unique contamination risks posed by rail transit. Combining this expertise in a thoughtful inspection process will guard against multiple risks and threats.

3. High-Quality Railcars

It’s difficult to maintain food safety in rail transportation—or any transportation mode—if the transit equipment does not meet quality standards. Shippers generally take on more responsibility here compared to other transit modes, as they are generally responsible for the state of the transit equipment, where a carrier is generally responsible for equipment in other transit modes, such as trucking. However, this also gives shippers more control over equipment, and can reduce product loss due to faulty equipment, as long as the equipment is well-maintained. Equipment quality is essential to maintain food safety in rail transportation.

Exterior damage to a rail car can indicate more extensive damage to heating coils or cooling components inside the car. If the car is showing rust or chips in paint, it’s a good idea to inspect the car more thoroughly. If heating and cooling components, seals, valves, or other essential equipment is not working properly at any point in the journey, the product can be compromised.

4. Vet Transload Facilities

Before shipping your food items along the selected route, make sure that each facility has the training, expertise and equipment to handle your product. Ask about standard operating procedures and inspections. What steps does the facility take to ensure that the product entering the facility is safe? Or, what tests can or do they regularly perform? What are their training procedures and HACCP plan? Ask to see the results of an internal audit as well. All of this information can help you decide if the transload facility is right for the materials you’re working with.

5. Open Communication, Data and Planning

If something goes wrong along the product’s rail journey, inspectors at transload facilities will alert shippers. If a seal is broken, a product tests outside of the normal range, a railcar is damaged, a waybill is inaccurate, or another issue arises, the facility will contact you. It’s important to communicate quickly, openly and clearly in this situation. Information about your railcars, other transload facilities, shipping facility, or other data can help to show if the issue is the result of a clerical error or poses a real threat to the product quality. In this case, there should also be a clear operating procedure and decision-making process for issuing a claused bill of lading, returning a shipment, or taking other action.

6. Efficient Supply Chain Operations

Railcars sitting on tracks, delays in loading or unloading, and inaccurate documentation can all slow down operations and create problems. Delays and mismanagement can quickly become bigger problems as shipments move through the supply chain. One of the best ways to maintain food safety in rail transit is to maintain efficient supply chain operations. If your railcars are frequently incurring demurrage costs and operations are not meeting deadlines, take a closer look at the organization and data behind your logistics processes. With more efficient supply chain operations, you can reduce costs, improve timelines and maintain food safety in rail transit.

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