NBC Bay Area learned Sysco Corporation rented 14 outdoor public storage units for years and used them as makeshift warehouses for raw meats, milk, and produce destined for restaurants and other clients across Northern California. After weeks of surveillance, the investigative unit questioned Sysco employees about the practice and revealed its findings to restaurant owners all over the Bay Area. The investigation spurred immediate action by state health inspectors. Investigative Vicky Nguyen reports on July 16, 2013.
Picture an an old, rusty, hot, storage unit. Most people use these outdoor sheds to keep unwanted furniture or knick knacks -- not their next meal.
But when health officials and restaurant owners learned that Sysco Corporation, one of the nation’s largest food distributors, was storing steak, chicken, pork, milk, and produce in outdoor storage sheds across Northern California, they were stunned.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit first reported the questionable practice on July 9th, prompting a statewide investigation by California Department of Public Health.
Beginning in May, the NBC Bay Area investigative unit staked out four different outdoor unrefrigerated storage units that Sysco rents throughout the Bay Area. These firsthand accounts along with interviews with state health inspectors paint an unsavory picture of food left on the floor alongside rat droppings and insects. On several occasions, cameras recorded food left sitting unrefrigerated for hours at a time in sheds that were not permitted to store food or water. One manager told us, his facility has this policy in place because of the potential for food to “attract rodents.”
Sysco declined an on-camera interview but provided this statement:
“Sysco’s first priority is our commitment to provide safe, quality-assured products to our customers. Sysco San Francisco’s drop-site practices in the bay area were not compliant with company policy. We are working with local health department authorities on their investigation to assist them with their needs. We also have reviewed with Sysco San Francisco our policy, and they have taken corrective action.”
If you’ve ever dined out, you’ve probably eaten Sysco food. According to the company’s website, Sysco Corporation provides food to nearly 400,000 clients worldwide, including hospitals, restaurants, schools, even our own diner here at NBC Bay Area.
But exactly how is that food handled before it reaches your plate? NBC Bay Area found out, after a source with inside information revealed the company’s dirty secret.
“This was something that had been going on for a long time – over 10 years,” the source told NBC Bay Area. “Enough is enough, the public needs to know where their food is coming from.”
At 4:30 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, NBC Bay Area hidden cameras observed a Sysco delivery truck arriving at an outdoor, unrefrigerated storage shed in Concord. The driver unloaded box after box carrying bread, lettuce, cheese, and raw pork. State and federal law requires that potentially hazardous foods like meats and dairy be placed in a temperature controlled environment at all times. State law also prohibits food of any kind from being placed on the ground by food handlers.
But throughout the day, NBC Bay Area captured Sysco salesmen picking up the food in their personal cars – another violation- to deliver to customers. Five hours after the delivery truck first arrived, a salesman finally loaded a case of “Butcher’s Block” pork into his trunk.
NBC Bay Area followed that pork from the back of his car to the back of a Concord restaurant.
The pattern was the same at every shed NBC Bay Area observed, up to six days a week, including hot days summer days when the temperatures inside a nearby unit measured 81 degrees.
Most storage facilities, including ones leased by Sysco, prohibit their customers from storing food or liquid of any kind because of the potential for these items to attract rodents and insects.
Still, that didn’t stop Sysco from keeping raw chicken, beef, vegetables, and milk on the floor inside these sheds. At one facility, NBC Bay Area observed food being stored just a few feet away from a rat trap.
In San Jose, NBC Bay Area spotted a saleswoman picking up food after it was sitting in a shed for three hours. But she didn’t drop it off right away. She made another stop to pick up a friend, followed by a trip to Starbucks, before eventually arriving at the Almaden Valley Athletic Club. NBC Bay Area later confirmed, the swim center is a Sysco client.
In all, NBC Bay Area observed Sysco truck drivers dropping off food in Concord, San Jose, San Francisco and Greenbrae; the investigative unit also confirmed Sysco used a total of 14 storage units across Northern California to store food.
NBC Bay Area questioned two associates about Sysco’s practices.
Why are you storing food in these sheds?
“We are?” one employee told NBC Bay Area after he was observed loading food from a shed into his personal car in San Jose.
“I can’t speak to you,” he said as he quickly closed the shed.
NBC Bay Area caught up with a second sales associate in Concord who agreed that pork sitting in an unrefrigerated shed for five hours is not acceptable.
“Well, sure, five hours is a problem, yeah,” the man acknowledged, after dropping off bread sticks at a Walnut Creek restaurant. NBC Bay Area observed those breadsticks sitting on the floor of a Concord shed and followed the salesman to the restaurant. He said, “It’s a common thing though, you know, because it’s food distribution.”
The NBC Bay Area investigative unit brought its findings to the state’s Food Safety Chief, Patrick Kennelly, who immediately launched an investigation, sending inspectors to all 14 sheds.
“I was actually very shocked, especially with a company of this size,” Kennelly told NBC Bay Area.
Kennelly said the sheds were unpermitted and hidden from state inspection until NBC Bay Area’s investigation. When state inspectors examined the sheds, they found rodent droppings, insects, and other unsanitary conditions.
“What seemed like a good idea from a marketing perspective really wasn’t thought through on the food safety side and food safety people are shaking their heads,” Kennelly said.
His office is now reviewing Sysco records to determine the number of violations. Sysco is headquartered in Houston and these alleged violations center around “Sysco San Francisco” based in Fremont. State inspectors said the company could possibly face up to $1,000 for each violation.
“There are 3,000 deaths per year believed to be linked to food borne illness in this country. There are 48 million cases of illness and up to 3,000 people die every year so it’s a big issue,” Kennelly said.
NBC Bay Area also showed the video of food being stored in sheds to some of Sysco’s clients, some of those vendors wanted to make immediate changes, while others didn’t see a problem.
“That’s horrible,” the manager of Tower Grille in Concord said after NBC Bay Area showed him video of a case of pork that was delivered to his restaurant after sitting in a shed for five hours. “We definitely don’t practice that here.”
The general manager of the Almaden Valley Athletic Club said he called Sysco after seeing NBC Bay Area’s first report on the sheds and he is now reviewing the swim center’s vendor options. He said he and his staff take food safety very seriously and have not recorded any complaints from people at the popular athletic club.
The owner of Faz at the Sheraton Hotel in Sunnyvale issued a statement about all five of his restaurants stating:
“The majority of our purchases from Sysco foods consist primarily of non-perishable supplies...we have contacted Sysco foods addressing our concerns.”
However, some owners were less concerned about the storage sheds than others.
Remember the breadsticks from the shed? The owner of Rocco’s in Walnut Creek told NBC Bay Area he didn’t see a problem with serving those to his customers. He said the breadsticks were wrapped and inside a box.
NBC Bay Area has learned, as of Monday, Sysco San Francisco president Bruce Luong, is no longer with the company.
Please click here to see a PDF of Sysco’s latest statement and the steps the company has taken following our investigation.
Cities in Northern California with unrefrigerated Sysco sheds:
• American Canyon
• Fort Bragg
• San Francisco
• San Jose
• San Mateo
• Santa Rosa
• Scotts Valley
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.