BOSTON (CBS) - A WBZ I-Team investigation uncovered an unappetizing and potentially hazardous practice in the restaurant industry.
During weeks of summer surveillance, cameras captured small businesses routinely ignoring protocols to help keep food at the optimum temperature as it is traveled to establishments around the Boston area.
After getting a tip, several I-Team producers and photographers spent hours watching in the parking lot of The Restaurant Depot in Everett, a wholesale food warehouse used exclusively by restaurants and other food-related businesses.
In sweltering 90-degree weather, the I-Team saw restaurant workers piling meat and other perishables into the trunks of cars and the beds of pickup truck.
The list of items included large sides of meat, 2-foot long sleeves of ground beef, cheese, eggs and other dairy products. The food was placed into vehicles without a cooler or ice pack in sight.
In one case, a man and his teenage helper loaded meat and eggs into their small sedan. The I-Team followed to the final destination and saw them unload at the restaurant nearly an hour later.
Another man loaded several pounds of ground beef into his trunk and then went back inside the Restaurant Depot to run another errand. The meat sat in the vehicle almost 15 minutes before the driver pulled out of the parking lot.
A crew of several workers packed an entire non-refrigerated van to the roof with meat, vegetables and other perishable foods. The lettering on the side was from the White Mountain region in New Hampshire.
FDA regulations require that all potentially hazardous food, including meat, must be at 41 degrees when it arrives at the establishment.
According to Boston University nutrition professor, Joan Salge Blake, anything above that is considered the danger zone, when bacteria multiplies much more rapidly.
"The rule of thumb is that food be in the danger zone for no more than two hours, but if it is 90 degrees or higher outside, no more than one hour," she explained.
To test just how meat would react to being placed in a confined and hot space, the I-Team tried an unscientific experiment, placing a large package of ground beef into the trunk of a car in temperatures near 90 degrees.
An hour later, the temperature of the meat had gone up nearly 20 degrees.
According to Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, restaurant owners are well aware of the rules and would not do anything to jeopardize their businesses. He said every food and beverage establishment has someone who has gone through certification and knows time and temperature standards.
"It's of paramount concern," Luz said. "Without a safe food environment, we are not in operation."
While he would not comment on the undercover video without knowing the circumstances, Luz said it might look worse than reality.
"A piece of meat that's 15 or 20 pounds would hold that temperature for an awful long time," he said.
But here is what is really surprising: Restaurant Depot has a huge "Keep it Kool" campaign, urging customers to purchase insulated containers to transport food.
There are visual reminders up inside the store, verbal reminders at checkout, and millions of frozen gel packs given out for free at exits, spokesman Gene Casazza said.
Despite those efforts, the I-Team never saw the insulated bags or frozen gel packs being used. On a few occasions, the I-Team did see Restaurant Depot members loading items into their own coolers.
When approached in the parking lot, the I-Team asked one restaurant owner if she had any concerns about transporting perishables without a cooler.
"We are always very concerned," she said. "We do take the temperature when we get to the restaurant again and if it's fallen out of the temperature danger zone then we dispose of it."
There was no way to know the exact temperature of the food the I-Team saw transported when it arrived at various locations around the Boston area. That is why WBZ is not identifying specific restaurants or workers.
Along with the "Keep it Kool" initiative, Casazza said the story should serve as an important reminder to its members.
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