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How Much Is Your Washout?

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of a Key Best Practice

Almost 99.9% of the time, when we call a carrier to let them know about our trailer sanitation service, the first question asked is “How much does it cost?”. Yes, it makes sense to start with a question about price, but focusing solely on a dollar amount can lead us astray when what we are buying really matters.

I am a good example of how making a decision based on price can produce less than desirable results. Needing to travel to visit my son after I concluded the business portion of a trip, I chose a flight with an airline that has notoriously low prices. Making some assumptions (which I do too often) about the details and doing very little research about what I actually got with that low fare resulted in a rather expensive flight. A quick but accurate cost-benefit analysis may have helped me save some money.

Fortunately for me, I don’t need to make air travel decisions on a frequent basis. However, there are probably other routine expenses that I pay for without much thought that because they are small or habitual, may actually be decisions that cost more than they are worth.

After talking to many drivers, dispatchers, safety managers, and even a few COO’s, it is clear that most refrigerated transport and brokerage companies don’t have a specified washout policy, nor are they aware of the pros and cons of understanding the value of this critical step in keeping food safe in the supply chain.

The Regulatory and Public Shift in Best Practice Expectations

It is understandable that companies view washouts as something that a driver should do only if they see or smell something in the trailer before loading food. This has been the ‘best practice’ since the beginning of refrigerated transportation.

But two changes in food transportation will slowly influence and improve expectations on what actually is a trailer sanitation best practice. First, the FDA’s Sanitary Transportation Act has opened the door for a more scientific and food safety specific approach to making sure trailers are not going to make food unsafe during transportation.

Second, and a more persuasive reason to tighten up trailer sanitation protocols, the obligation companies have to ensure that their practices do not put the public’s food at risk because of substandard food safety practices should always shape their operational policies. Food transportation starts with a clean trailer.

But rather than get tangled up in a time-consuming discussion about whether or not the FDA intended to incorporate accepted food safety standards into food transportation, or whether there is evidence that shows trailers could actually cause foodborne illnesses, it makes more sense to talk about the real costs and benefits of an effective washout.

There’s Money On the Table

Here’s an interesting note about what we’ve learned here at Healthy Trailer about the value of a strong trailer sanitation program:

It’s not the driver managers or employees in the food safety and QA departments who see the benefit of a buttoned up washout process. Rather, we are attracting the attention of the individuals in marketing roles who are working on differentiating their product offerings and CFO’s who are keeping an eye on small but significant operational decisions that could actually make money instead of spending it.

Let’s take a look at determining the value of your company’s trailer sanitation (aka washout) protocols.

And in addition to thinking about the cost, let’s evaluate what we’re spending in relation to what we’re actually getting.

Also, this discussion is from a carrier’s point of view. If you are not a carrier but maybe a fresh produce shipper, a food processor, or in the retail, food service or other type of food company, hopefully this analysis will help you evaluate your current transportation vendors.

In a Harvard Business Review article about a cost/benefit analysis, the author pointed out that working through this process is a framework for making a business decision. How does a cost/benefit analysis of a washout give structure to this specific operational activity?

This question gets answered with another question: Does our washout policy matter? How do we know whether it does or does not? Here are at least five areas that should be considered to give you the best answer:

  1. Are we contractually obligated to a specific trailer cleaning standard?

  2. Even if we do not have a contract with specific customers guiding our decisions, could we defend our washout protocols if our customer is part of a food recall?

  3. On that note, if the FDA inspected our operations, can we show that we are compliant with food safety regulations?

  4. Can we add value to our product or service offerings because we are insisting on using only clean and sanitary trailers?

  5. What positive effects will our proactive trailer washout policies have on improving the food safety culture in our company?

As you can see in these questions, there is value in whether trailers are clean and sanitary for food transportation. There are choices about how a trailer is cleaned, and also these choices may have consequences. It will be worth your time to put your ‘best practice’ through this cost-benefit analysis.

The contractual obligation issue is significant. If your company has contractually agreed in writing to a trailer ‘clean and sanitary’ term, make sure the expectations are specified and in

writing so that your employees are properly informed, trained and are complying with the specifications. Anything short of this could result in fines and/or costly breaches of contract.

Beyond contractual considerations, a cost-benefit analysis of implementing a routine effective washout program may make sense for the following reasons:

  1. Prior cargos of all types can expose trailers to contamination;

  2. Loading schedules put pressure on drivers short on time to sweep or blow debris out of the trailer instead of following your washout protocols;

  3. Shipping facilities (docks, forklifts, etc) where your trailers are loaded may not be sanitary or meet your company’s sanitation protocols;

  4. Trailers staged in a drop yard may not be cleaned when they are parked, and some are left with the doors open exposing the surfaces to contamination via pests, air, water and unrestricted people;

  5. Your customers’ receiving areas and people are not aligned with your sanitation protocols.

The above questions and considerations will give you some guidance on whether you feel that your trailer sanitation/washout is something that either needs your attention or that you believe is fine in its current state.

Understanding the costs and benefits will help further guide your decisions. What we have learned since Healthy Trailer opened for business is that many trucking companies (or their customers) haven’t really paid attention to the washout services that they buy or the positive and negative outcomes of a good or bad washout.

The chart below gives a quick visual on how good and bad washouts compare in terms of direct cost (💲), actual time spent/invested in different types of washouts (🕒), driver and customer experience (😊😟) and the overall cost/benefit results that are consequences of washout choices (👍/👎).

Direct costs, as we said earlier, often the price that is actually charged for a product or a service, is where we all tend to focus in our purchasing decisions. But also true for most of us, price doesn’t always accurately reflect the value of what we buy.

Besides price, washout decisions are often based on driver preferences (convenient locations, additional available services, friendly staff,) geographical proximity to unloading and shipping locations, and availability of purchase order payment options.

And sometimes, particularly when fuel prices are high, drivers are asked to minimize mileage.

In most of our conversations with trucking companies and members of food company logistics teams, rarely have we been asked questions about our service other than hours of operation, our location, and total time needed for a service.

In comparison, food safety personnel usually ask us science and food safety related questions such as how germicidal UV works, how we test its efficacy, do we clean all the trailer surfaces, do we have protocols, and if we have a documentation feature included in our service.

Given the benefits of a quality trailer sanitation procedure, it has surprised us that many companies leave money on the table when they don’t choose a good cleaning option. To better understand these choices, look at the two charts below for a cost/benefit analysis of a good washout service.

First, the Cost side of a substandard washout. Note the questions that will help you better analyze your current trailer washout program.

Now check out the Benefits gained if washouts are a priority.

Use Your Numbers to Check Your Washout Status

What is not included on either of these charts are actual numbers, primarily because each operation is different. But using historical data next to the costs and benefits would surely show that there are substantial savings and positive financial gains for companies that understand the value of including trailer sanitation protocols into their programs.

The costs and benefits stated in the charts are actual issues and considerations that we have learned from our conversations and experiences with industry members, including retail, wholesale and food service suppliers and buyers, as well as the trucking companies (owners, drivers, dispatchers and customer service representatives) who transport food products.

We encourage you to take a second look at your washout practices rather than assume that your trailers transporting food are as clean and sanitary. You have contracts to fulfill and FDA regulations that need your compliance. You have drivers that want to be happy and

productive in their work. And you have customers who will be so excited to hear that their food orders are arriving on clean and sanitary trailers.

Trailer sanitation is here to stay. Make it your friend instead of your foe and start reaping the rewards! The fruit of this change in your washout program is probably hanging lower than you think and well worth the effort.

Not sure where to start? Try these steps.

Have more questions or comments? We’d like to hear from you! Send them to

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