Michael Moss and Andrew Martin of The New York Times reviewed several major recent outbreaks of foodborne illness and discovered that auditors, private contractors who are often paid by the companies they inspect, “failed to detect problems at plants whose contaminated products later sickened consumers.”
“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.
Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. The rigor of audits varies widely and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the Food and Drug Administration spends to inspect a plant.
Even when private auditors detect violations, Moss and Martin reported, the companies are under no obligation to correct them.
Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, said, “The only thing that matters is productivity.” He added that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”
Some companies have refused to use the nation’s 200 auditing corporations or numerous independent contractors, instead preferring strict internal controls.
- Following the salmonella outbreak at a Georgia peanut processor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined the state’s peanut inspection system and found troubling gaps: Inspectors often fail to follow up on violations, and few have backgrounds in science. Georgia’s chief inspector responded, “We’re satisfied with the inspections that were done, because they are a snapshot in time.”
- Salmonella outbreak may linger for 2 years
- Lax oversight, complex supply chains aid outbreaks
- Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks: Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service wrote about food-borne illness outbreaks in a 2007 article for AHCJ. He found that some states did a good job of diagnosing and tracking down the causes of outbreaks, while other states “are virtually blind in detecting outbreaks of food illness.”
- HHS’s new social media team focuses on outbreak