Employees of Sysco Corporation, the world's largest food distributor, shed light on the dirty and longstanding practices of storing food in outdoor, unrefrigerated sheds across the U.S. and Canada. Their testimonies to NBC Bay Area have launched inquiries by Canadian government officials and have prompted an apology and pledge to improve oversight at Sysco Corporation. Vicky Nguyen reports 9/10/13
After years of silence, Sysco Corporation employees across North America are finally speaking out about a longstanding practice by the world’s largest food distributor that put the public’s health at risk. Their startling revelations come in response to an NBC Bay Area investigation in July that uncovered 14 outdoor, unrefrigerated sheds across Northern California that the company used to store meat, dairy, produce, and other perishable food items.
When Sysco Corp. was asked to respond to the discovery of these sheds throughout the United States and Canada, the company vowed to “cease operations” at all sheds, which it called “drop sites.” But the company action isn’t enough to thwart new inquiries by Canadian health officials who have begun looking at Sysco’s compliance with Canada’s food laws. Meanwhile an investigation by the California Department of Public Health is ongoing. The CDPH says it found 7 additional sheds for a total of 21 sheds in California used to store food that were never registered with the state, and never inspected.
Why would a billion dollar company like Sysco Corporation take this kind of risk?
Sources tell NBC Bay Area these sheds were used as a cost-efficient way to deliver small orders that weren’t profitable enough to be delivered to customers in a refrigerated big rig truck.
“Well, that’s how they make their money right? They cut corners where no one can see,” Eric Harlan, former Sysco big rig driver in Reno said.
“I came to a fence and I looked at it and [I’m] like…this is a freaking storage shed,” Harlan said, remembering the shock when he made his first delivery to one of Sysco’s sheds storing food destined for restaurants in the Reno area. ”I mean it was nasty. I second guessed actually doing it, but I have a kid and a family to provide for and I was brand new at the company.”
Harlan said he left the company after eight months, disgusted with the condition of the unrefrigerated sheds.
“I remember dropping off chicken and beef and stuff that was perishable items,” Harlan said.
Harlan is one of dozens of current and former Sysco employees from L.A. to New York City who shared their experiences with the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, recounting their firsthand experiences with these sheds.
Many of them asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from the food industry. However, all of them confirmed that sheds similar to the ones found throughout California have been around for years in: Nevada, Washington, Utah, Tennessee, Illinois, New York, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian province of Ontario.
Sysco Corporation did not have an answer for how many sheds were used as drop sites throughout the U.S. and Canada, nor would the company say how far back this practice went.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous, told NBC Bay Area he worked for Sysco in Spokane, Wash., a distribution center that services portions of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
“I saw the [NBC Bay Area] story and I said, ‘Well, that’s going on here.’” the former employee said. “It was always the method of operation”
Unlike in the Bay Area, he says the sheds in Spokane had refrigeration units, but those units were not big enough to store all of the food in the shed.
“Most of the time, there were extra cases of frozen food on the floor outside the fridges,” he said.
Employees from coast to coast say that all of these sheds were hidden from health officials and never inspected.
TransCert food safety specialist Dr. John Ryan trains and certifies food distributors on proper food handling. Ryan was appalled when he learned about these sheds where Sysco was storing food for years.
“They are gambling with public health,” Ryan told NBC Bay Area. “As soon as food gets over the 41 degree level, bacteria will double every few minutes,” which could lead to serious health problems, Ryan warned.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 48 million people get sick each year in the U.S. from eating bad food.
Many of the sheds uncovered by NBC Bay Area were dirty and filled with rust, dust, and debris. NBC Bay Area surveillance cameras captured food sitting in these sheds for up to 5 hours, in temperatures as hot as 81 degrees, before it was delivered to restaurants and hotels.
Back in July, Sysco told NBC Bay Area that the 14 sheds were an “anomaly” and that the practice would be stopped in Northern California immediately. But after the Investigative Unit received numerous tips from both current and for employees throughout the U.S. and Canada, Sysco is now admitting this was a problem throughout the billion-dollar corporation.
Late Friday evening, Sysco Corporation CEO Bill DeLaney released a statement announcing that the company has eliminated the use of these sheds and all other drop sites “drop sites” stating:
“We have directed operating companies across sysco to cease operations at all drop sites, even those with refrigeration and frozen-food storage capability… We deeply regret the concern this has caused and we pledge that we will use this to both improve our oversight and to lead the industry in improving food safety practices.”
In addition, after NBC Bay Area’s investigation aired, Sysco San Francisco, which distributes food throughout the Bay Area, has purchased a fleet of refrigerated vans to deliver smaller orders that would have previously been stored in a shed.
Harlan believes the company owes the public more than an apology. He wants to see monetary fines levied to send a message about the importance of food safety.
“If it costs Sysco millions to fix the problem, then so be it, that’s everyone’s safety right there,” Harlan said. “They did something wrong they should be held accountable for it.”
Since launching its investigation in July after being contacted by NBC Bay Area, California Public health officials provided an update on their progress.
A CDPH spokesperson told NBC Bay Area inspectors have been closely evaluating Sysco’s distribution information to understand the extent of the company’s violations in the state. Inspectors have discovered seven additional shed locations beyond the 14 uncovered by NBC, for a total of 21 sheds that Sysco operated across California. They also found four other Sysco distribution centers were also using sheds to store food, in addition to the Sysco San Francisco distribution center located in Fremont, but inspectors would not name the other four.
NBC Bay Area has also reached out to the FDA to find out if these potential violations are under federal investigation. The department said they investigate all complaints but would not confirm if they are looking into Sysco. As of the air date on Tuesday night, Sysco spokesman Charley Wilson said he was unaware of any contact from the FDA.
Meanwhile Canadian health officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture tell NBC Bay Area that they are looking into the company’s distribution practices in their country. In fact, this weekend the Toronto Sun reported Canadian health officials “are investigating after Sysco Corporation, which operates 193 distribution facilities across North America, said late Friday that food products at a number of their drops sites were not under “appropriate climate controls.”
Do you have a tip for The Investigative Unit? You can call the Investigative Unit’s tipline at 888-996-TIPS or send an email to TheUnit@NBCBayArea.com. Vicky Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @vickydnguyen or on Facebook.