Reports of people selling meat out of trucks and backpacks in an Indiana community spurred health officials to issue a public warning and a request for help Wednesday.

“There is great risk in buying meat or seafood from unlicensed vendors,” the Brown County Health Department warning states. “Sometimes this meat is obtained from places where it has been discarded due to being past the usable date, and it is repackaged and resold.

mystery meat“Please contact either the sheriff’s department, town police or the health department if you see meat being sold illegally in town.”

There have been similar problems in the past, Jennifer Heller Rugenstein, environmental health specialist with the department, told the Brown County Democrat newspaper.

The only “mobile meat vendor” authorized to operate in Brown County, which is just south of Indianapolis, is Schwan Foods, which operates distinctive yellow trucks, usually with refrigeration units.

Lack of refrigeration is a dead give away when it comes to illegal meat sellers, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The agency has an entire page on its website dedicated to helping consumers identify illegal and unsafe meat and poultry sellers.

The standing warning from the federal agency and this week’s warning from Brown County health officials in Nashville, IN, both tell consumers to ask all vendors to show their licenses.

“If they cannot provide this, DO NOT BUY their products,” the Brown County warning states.

Out-dated or improperly refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood can harbor a variety of bacteria that can cause serious injury and sometimes death. Pathogens including E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter are among the bacteria often found in raw meat, poultry and seafood.

The USDA’s food safety advice in regard to so-called door-to-door meat sellers is simple and direct: “In general, beware of claims that are too good to be true. They usually are.”

Consumers can email questions and live chat with food safety experts on the USDA's Ask Karen website. Click on the image to visit the site.
Consumers can email questions and live chat with food safety experts on the USDA’s Ask Karen website. Click on the image to visit the site.

Other specific recommendations from the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline regarding how to decide whether to buy food from door-to-door sellers or individuals with trucks in parking lots include:

Check the dealer — Ask for literature and take plenty of time to read it. If you lack the time to check into the distribution practices of the company, consider not purchasing from them.

Ask for a brochure — Reputable companies will have a local sales office with a published price list that includes the address and phone number of the company.

Read the label — Insist on having the establishment number where the meat or poultry was inspected. USDA- and state-inspected products are required to give information about the product on the label. On raw products, species, cut, net weight, ingredients statement, and safe handling statement are required.

Check for grading information — If a meat or poultry product is graded by USDA, there must be a USDA grade shield or mark on the carcass, package or product label. Only the official USDA grade can be used as a guide to the quality of the meat. Meat and poultry companies may label products with a company quality label. If a product is labeled with a term such as “restaurant quality,” ask which USDA grade is comparable. For example, the USDA “commercial” grade is a lesser grade than “select.”

Understand the cuts — Know which cut of meat or poultry you are buying when making a meat or poultry purchase decision. Check the label for proper identification of the cut of meat or poultry you are purchasing. For example, you don’t want to pay top dollar for tenderloin and receive a cheaper cut such as a shoulder roast.

Ask to see a retail permit— In most states, salespersons are required to have a State license or permit to sell products door-to-door. Ask to see the salesperson’s license to sell.

Check for refrigeration — Never buy meat or poultry products that are carried in an unrefrigerated truck or car trunk. The product may be unsafe because bacteria that cause illness multiply rapidly above 40 degrees F.

You can cancel — The Federal Trade Commission Cooling-Off Rule gives you three days to cancel purchases that are made in your home or at a location that is not the permanent place of business or local address of the seller. The rule does not cover sales of $25 or less. The salesperson must tell you of your cancellation rights at the time of sale.

You also must be given two copies of a cancellation form and a copy of your contract or receipt. The contract or receipt should be dated, show the name and address of the seller, and explain your right to cancel. The contract or receipt must be in the same language used in the sales presentation.

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