Confirmation: When It Comes to Food Safety, You’re Right to Be Paranoid

Third-party auditors have given top ratings to food producers just before major illness outbreaks.

Are third-party food inspectors ensuring our food is safe? (Photo: Echo/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor, and a ground turkey facility all got top safety ratings from third-party food inspectors either before or just after their products made consumers seriously ill, says a startling new report from Bloomberg Markets Magazine.

“The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies—known as third-party auditors—who aren’t required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision,” writes the Bloomberg team who produced the story. And many companies, they say, won’t allow those third-party auditors to actually look for deadly pathogens like salmonella or listeria. Instead, auditors may be instructed to use standards selected by the company itself. 

“Americans are at risk whenever they go to a supermarket,” Doug Powell, a professor at Kansas State University and author of a study on audits and inspections, told Bloomberg. “The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless.”

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For example: Bloomberg found that private food inspection company AIB International audited Wright County Egg Farm in Iowa, bestowing top ratings, even as eggs from the facility were sickening consumers with salmonella. The same company gave a “superior” rating to the now-defunct Georgia-based Peanut Corp. Soon after, an outbreak traced to Peanut Corp. sickened 714 and may have caused 46 deaths. Similarly, Bio Food Safety, Inc., gave Jensen Farm a glowing score of 96 out of 100, just before cantaloupes from the farm killed 33 and sickened 147 others.

Part of the reason third-party audits are happening is because the FDA, which is responsible for most food inspections, doesn’t have the resources needed to monitor all the food produced or imported into the U.S. It would need an additional $3 billion in funding to do so. Currently, the agency only inspects 6 percent of food produced here, and only .4 percent of imported food.

Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety campaign, says what’s important to clarify here, and may have gotten lost in the Bloomberg story, is that an audit and inspection are two different things.

“Auditors are not inspectors. They’re adding data the inspectors can look at as they oversee the process,” she tells TakePart. “Third-party auditors are generally required by companies to ensure the safety of suppliers. But they’re all over the map in who audits, who pays, and how they’re certified.”

Kathy Means, spokesperson for the Produce Marketing Association, agrees.

“An audit is a snapshot in time and is part of an overall food-safety system that includes internal testing,” she tells TakePart. “[Audits] are not a silver bullet. It’s one piece of a system, and you can’t assign it more gravitas than it deserves.”

Part of the concern over food safety stems from headline grabbing recalls that continue to plague our food supply. (Indeed, we’re in the midst of a peanut butter recall right now.) But it also stems from lack of action in Washington.

As we reported before, the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, designed to address food safety in imported and processed food, continues to languish in the Office of Management and Budget, despite being signed into law by President Obama nearly two years ago. Once enacted, the law will require mandatory food safety plans in every facility. It includes regulations that impact produce safety standards, especially for high-risk fruits and vegetables, and calls for increased controls for imported food. It would also give the FDA the ability to certify third-party auditors to conduct inspections for them. That last part is something the food industry lobbied for and won.  

Third-party auditors aren’t just looking at produce or processed food facilities. They’re being used in meat production as well, which falls under USDA, rather than the FDA. While Cargill was busy recalling 36 pounds of ground turkey after the salmonella Heidelberg pathogen was discovered in August 2011, Food Safety Net Services Ltd. gave the facility a perfect score for animal welfare and handling, according to Bloomberg.

Also worth noting: Retailers vary on the amount of pathogens they’ll allow in the products they sell to consumers.

“Salmonella is so common that Wal-Mart accepts ground turkey after tests find 49.9 percent of samples have bacteria. That’s the maximum allowed by law. Costco rejects shipments with any trace of salmonella,” says Bloomberg reporters.

The lesson here?

“We can’t rely on enforcement,” says Eskin. “We need prevention built into the system.”

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