Conflicts abound for private food inspectors

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Washington Post‘s Lena H. Sun has gathered, in one story, a laundry list of all the shortcomings, loopholes and conflicts of interest plaguing an American food inspection system so flawed that foodborne disease outbreaks are routinely caused by facilities with “superior” safety ratings (See Wright County Egg and the Peanut Corporation of America).

Here, I’ve cherry-picked Sun’s basic points. They echo much of what we’ve heard from previous food-safety investigations, despite the fact that each story always seems to end with the FDA pledging to reform the system. Her first observation is also the most fundamental, and will be familiar to anyone following the role of independent credit rating agencies in the financial crisis.

“… auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might fear they will lose business if they don’t give high ratings.”

“Food companies often choose the cheapest auditors to minimize the added expense of inspections, which range from about $1,000 to more than $25,000.”

“… foodmakers can prepare for audits because they often know when inspectors will show up.”

“… auditors have a range of experience and qualifications, from recent college graduates to retired food industry veterans. They sometimes walk through a plant, ticking off a checklist to produce a score, Samadpour said. Basic inspections do not typically include microbial sampling for bacteria.”

“The FDA has the authority but not the resources to routinely inspect the estimated 150,000 food-processing plants in the United States or the 250,000 facilities abroad that supply U.S. consumers.”

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