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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Private Third-Party Audits or Government Audits – Choose Your Poison

When it comes to inspecting the thousands of food manufacturing facilities in our increasingly complex and intertwined food supply, some argue that we need more actual governmental audits while others argue that private, third-party audits are the way to go.  In the Peanut Corporation of America, Kellogg and King Nut Salmonella Outbreak, audits – government or private failed to protect the nearly 700 sickened, 150 hospitalized and nine who died.   So, which way to go – private or public inspections?  I am not sure that there is a clear answer.  As I said, “choose your poison.”

The dynamic peanut butter duo at the New York Times, Martin and Moss (with the help of unnamed and unquoted sources) penned a fine piece – “Food safety problems slip by auditors” a few days ago.

They reported that when “food industry giants like Kellogg want to ensure that American consumers are being protected from contaminated products, they rely on private inspectors …”  That audit found:
”The overall food safety level of this facility was considered to be: SUPERIOR,” he concluded in his March 27, 2008, report for his employer, the American Institute of Baking, which performs audits for major food companies.

However, “[f]ederal investigators later discovered that the dilapidated plant was ravaged by Salmonella and had been shipping tainted peanuts and paste for at least nine months. But they were too late to prevent what has become one of the nation’s worst known outbreaks of food-borne disease in recent years, in which nine are believed to have died and an estimated 22,500 (CDC estimates) were sickened.”

My favorite quotes:

”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.

“The American Institute of Baking [are] bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top food safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Bottom line is that it is about the bottom line.  Private audits run the risk of helping product flow – pathogen free or not – into the marketplace.

However, Alan Judd of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, working solo (but with better quotes), shows where the private audits might well be about money, government audits appear to be about incompetence. He wrote this weekend, “Spotty records suggest firms got a lot of slack.”

“Georgia’s food inspectors had rules for butchering alligators. They had procedures for the proper handling of “feral swine.” But only since last month has the inspectors’ manual told them specifically how to ensure the safe processing of a more everyday fare: peanuts.”

“But the lax oversight of Peanut Corp.’s factory typifies how the state regulates all 27 peanut processors in Georgia, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.”

“The agriculture agency defends the work of its 60 “sanitarians,” the inspectors who oversee 16,000 Georgia food processors, warehouses, groceries and bakeries. Few, however, have backgrounds in food safety, or in any other science. Of the 11 inspectors assigned to peanut factories, just one holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, two in biology. Others majored in such subjects as child development, history and anthropology.”

My favorite quote:

“Haphazard” enforcement allows dangerous conditions to flourish inside Georgia processing plants, said Bill Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food contamination cases. He represents several clients who say they were sickened by Peanut Corp. products. “It is almost impossible to reconcile inspection reports with findings after outbreaks,” Marler said. “You look at them and think, ‘Gee, were they in the same facility?’ Is it really inspecting, or is it about keeping that product flowing?”