St. Louis (KSDK) - An I-Team investigation has uncovered a widespread problem within the restaurant business that could put your health at risk. There is a simple, inexpensive solution, but the majority of restaurants we taped aren't doing it.
Over the course of several days, with temperatures soaring into triple digits, we watched restaurant employees toss perishable foods into blistering hot vans and un-air conditioned trunks.
The employees were shopping at Restaurant Depot, a warehouse that specializes in providing local restaurants with bulk items.
We recorded one food retailer after another throwing raw meat, cheese and eggs into scorching hot trunks. We watched milk left out on a cart, as crucial minutes ticked by.
"That would definitely be a concern," said Gerrin Cheek-Butler, a food safety inspector with St. Louis County.
The Department of Agriculture says cold food must stay at or below 41 degrees or it could enter what is called the danger zone where bacteria grow most rapidly.
We watched one woman load up on eggs, salad, and frozen beef and toss all of it into a van with no apparent regard for cross contamination.
Eggs need to maintain 45 degrees, so we decided to follow her from the Restaurant Depot location in St. Louis just off Manchester and Hampton.
She stopped at a gas station, taking about seven minutes to fill up and go into the store.
That is about the same amount of time it took for the thermometer to reach 120 degrees inside our parked car.
We followed her on to Interstate 64, across the Poplar Street Bridge, and into Illinois.
About 40 minutes later, she arrived at a Collinsville sandwich shop.
We asked if she always transferred eggs without a cooler.
"Not always. It's more of an occasional thing," she said.
That woman wasn't unique. The majority of the people we videotaped appeared not to be taking steps to maintain proper temperature controls.
Our food safety expert with St. Louis County cringed at the site of raw meat stacked over tomatoes.
"That concerns me the most. If any juice blood drips down on to that lettuce or tomatoes that are not cooked, that could be a source of disease," said Cheek-Butler.
We saw frozen patties thawing inside a hot trunk and stacked on top of perishables. That, says our expert, has the potential for cross contamination.
"My guess is if you ask the people transporting the food, they'll tell you they've been doing it this way for years, and nobody ever got sick. They always say that," said Cheek-Butler.
She said that statement is ridiculous and that people do get sick.
Restaurant Depot hands out free gel packs and has a giant sign in front of the store reminding customers to "Keep it Kool," but we didn't see a lot of vendors grabbing gel packs, using coolers, or transporting food in refrigerated trucks.
Our expert would give the majority of retailers we viewed a D.
"There was definitely a lot of potential bad practices," said Cheek-Butler.
Those bad practices could lead to salmonella or listeria or a host of other things that could make you sick.
What our investigation showed, is that monitoring this part of the restaurant business is off the radar. There aren't enough inspectors. So, as it stands now, it is up to individual restaurant owners to do the right thing.
Food safety experts say the right thing is simple.
Get a cooler and keep a thermometer around to make sure food stays out of the danger zone.
Mike Downey is a food safety expert who teaches culinary arts restaurant management. He is accredited by the National Restaurant Association, the American Culinary Federation and the National Environmental Health Association.
"There are holes in the system. We must ourselves as an industry step in and take the extra precautions for public safety." He added, "In this extreme heat, to put a cooler or ice pack, even if it's just a 10 or 15 minute drive, is not too much to ask," said Downey.
This story came about because a viewer, who is a restaurant consultant, became more and more disgusted with the way some retailers are handling and transporting food.
He emailed the I-Team urging an investigation. And, he stressed that customers deserved better, especially from an area that prides itself on its great restaurants.