Private Food Safety Inspectors Routinely Give Seal Of Approval To Dangerous Food

Large companies routinely rely on private audits to prove that their food is safe even though private auditors are dangerously incompetent, according to a New York Times investigation. The private auditor who inspected the Peanut Corporation of America plant responsible for unleashing the massive salmonella contamination was trained to audit bakeries and repeatedly gave the plant a “SUPERIOR” rating, partly because he “never thought that [salmonella] would survive in the peanut butter type environment.”

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.

Typically, the private auditors inspect only manufacturing plants, not the suppliers that feed ingredients to those facilities. Nor do they commonly test the actual food products for pathogens, even though gleaming production lines can turn out poisoned fare.

As in the Georgia peanut case, auditors are also usually paid by the food plants they inspect, which some experts said could deter them from cracking down. Yet food companies often point to an auditor’s certificate as a seal of approval.

The baking institute, which is based in Manhattan, Kan., and is also known as AIB International, says it inspected more than 10,000 food production sites in 80 countries last year. James R. Munyon, its president and chief executive, said his group’s inspections were reliable and tough, no matter who pays for them, but he declined to elaborate on specific audits.

Even worse, employees with safety concerns are told to defer to the private audits.

Both the government and industry are aware of the problem. The government’s solution? “Expanding the role of private auditors to inspect the more than 200,000 foreign facilities that ship food to the United States.”

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.”

Dr. LaBudde said a sausage plant hired him five years ago to determine the species of bacillus plaguing its meat. But the owner then refused to complete the testing. “I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it,” he said, declining to name the company.

Food Safety Problems Slip Past Private Inspectors [The New York Times]

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  1. dragonfire81 says:

    Auditors being paid by the companies they inspect…hmmm, that sounds like a conflict of interest on par with Aribitrators being paid by one of the members of the dispute they are charged with judging in a “fair and impartial” manner.

    Is there any regulatory system that isn’t corrupt and broken by now? I’ve yet to see one that is really that effective.

    On a side note, that has to be one of the best article photos ever. Well done.

    • BPA-Free_GitEmSteveDave says:

      @dragonfire81: Well, to be fair, if the Auditors are using tests and methods that can be peer reviewed and duplicated, I see no problem with it. IIRC, a show I watched on Discovery showed how they clean a chicken/turkey processing plant nightly. They take samples from the machine and process them on site to see if there are any bacteria. They do it on site as it wouldn’t be very feasible to send it to a lab at 3am and get rapid results.

      However, if they are just rubber stamping, then hell yeah!, it’s a problem.

      • johnva says:

        @BPA-Free_GitEmSteveDave: The problem here is the incentive structure. An auditor who is hired by the company he is auditing has an incentive to get the results they want, or else risk not getting hired again. He has a disincentive to tell the truth if the truth isn’t what they want to hear. So many of them will end up fudging it in some way.

        A similar situation was taking place with “home appraisers” during the mortgage bubble: they were hired by the banks, who wanted to make mortgages on inflated values. Appraisers who found things wrong with a transaction had a disincentive to tell the truth because their business was all coming from the mortgage people. The ones who got all the repeat business were the ones who just rubber-stamped everything.

        • BPA-Free_GitEmSteveDave says:

          @johnva: That’s why I said if their results and practices can’t stand up to peer review, then out they should go. When people refuse and/or stall to have their results peer reviewed, then that should be a red flag.

          • johnva says:

            @BPA-Free_GitEmSteveDave: Yes, they “should” go if their results and methods are not properly peer-reviewed. No one is questioning that. What I’m saying is that they, in fact, often DO NOT “go” when there is this conflict of interest. My point is that many of the companies who hire these auditors aren’t really interested in getting a real honest inspection done; they’re just looking for a veneer of credibility. That’s why I think that auditors should be hired by someone else whose job is different (protecting public safety vs. protecting sales of a product).

    • OwenKlient says:

      @dragonfire81: It certainly is a problem if companies can hire auditors, then choose whether to ignore whatever they find. Really, it sounds like these companies hired auditors as a CYA rather than to help them with product safety or to improve their products or processes.

      Between the banks and the melamine scare and the salmonella scare, I think we are seeing now why calls to de-regulate industry are just a bad idea. Whose bright idea was it to have industry “self-regulate”? I’m sure it was some free marketer: “If enough people die from using this product, people will stop buying it and the company will go out of business. See? The free market works!”

      It is certainly possible to have unreasonable or unfair regulation that amounts to nothing more than red tape. But then the answer is to fix the regulation, not to get rid of regulation altogether.

  2. godlyfrog says:

    A co-worker of mine used to work at a sausage plant, and they have an on-site lab with company paid employees to check for contamination. They take random sausage samples, test the machines themselves, and have days where the entire line is shut down so they can test the machine from start to finish.

    In the end, their prices are a little more expensive than generic brands, but knowing that their quality control is at such a high level is enough for me to pay that extra money.

    • BPA-Free_GitEmSteveDave says:

      @godlyfrog: Agreed. When it’s on your head that a batch that you tested may have gotten someone sick, that a very good incentive to make sure the product you as the employee are putting out is the best it can be.

    • Charles Duffy says:

      @godlyfrog: Could you name the company?

  3. Charles Duffy says:

    As a Costco member, I was rather pleased (reading the full article) to see that Costco only allows The Baking Institute to inspect bakeries — as, in their [Costco's food safety staff's] opinion, TBI is in fact competent there — but don’t know WTF they’re doing in a peanut or meatpacking plant.

    If only more retailers would take an active role…

  4. tony_important says:

    great photo choice

  5. Skaperen says:

    Aha… I’ve found my new career path. I’ve got a computer and printer. I’m ready to make money inspecting food.

  6. cwlodarczyk says:

    I work in this industry. I can tell you that the problem usually doesn’t lie with the auditors, but rather with the companies that hire them.

    Broadly speaking those of us who do this are trained appropriately for the environments that we’ll be working in and make earnest efforts to identify problems to the companies that we are contracted to. The audits we perform in many places are much more intensive than what the local health department inspectors do.

    More often than not the contracting companies are the ones that limit the scope and intensity of the audits. This is of course absolutely their right – they pay for them and have their own goals and uses for the data that these audits turn up.

    @dragonfire: there’s no conflict here – auditing is part of an internal process of quality control. We do the jobs that we’re paid to do.

  7. bohemian says:

    Back in the old days meat plants used to have someone from the USDA on site all the time. But the food industry decided that was bothersome and cut into their profits. So they convinced the Republicans to change to the self policing model. Now we have what we have. Bring back on site federal inspectors for big meat plants and regular routine inspections at other facilities. The whole private inspection thing just isn’t working.

    • PirateCaptain_GitEmSteveDave says:

      @bohemian: And the Democrats never took the chance to change it back? Hrmmmmmm.

    • Anonymous says:

      @bohemian:
      As this is world wide practice I think it is a little unfair to blame the republicans. The whole world uses standard and the testing rules. And to be honest MOST food companies to have heart for the wellbeing of their customers. Usually that gets lost when the money and size of the company increase. The worst food companies are those that are led by accountants as the do not understand the first thing about food and safety issues.

      One of the problems with on site inspectors that they also became part of the problem as they were always there and the were friendly with staff. An auditor should not be visiting the same factory more than two years in a row, to avoid conflict of interest.
      Furthermore the auditors need to go for regular re-examinations and ARE inspected by governmental agencies.

      As an ex-auditor and ex-QA manager I know where the pressures are. Often you are put under pressure in both positions by management to produce what executive (read accountants) want. As an auditor I was known to be tough but honest. The reality is that if a company switches auditcompanies every 2 years or so it is well known in industry and most reputable firms will not touch them with a bargepole.

      As a QA manager I quit my job twice as my executive tried to make me do stuff that I deemed unacceptable. I was not willing to put my name to it. In one case there was both governmental and private auditing in the firm (this is not the USA) the company went bust. In the other case I did before I left instigate and finalised a recall after withstanding a lot of pressure. Once that was done Head held high.
      But the pressure mounted on a person both as an auditor and QA can be too straining. I left that line of work though I loved it essentially.

  8. Ronald Riley says:

    Are you suggesting, sir, that there are some things better controlled by government supervision than by free market capitalism? Do you mean to say that companies whose only interest is the bottom line and returns to shareholders might sometimes sell dangerous products to the American public if they think it will cost less than making sure the products are safe?

    I suggest you and Comrade Obama take your socialist agenda to some place like Cuba, where it will be appreciated.

  9. snidelywhiplash says:

    @Raiders757:

    What if your neighbor (like me) frequently or always works weekends? Should our lawns go wild just to suit you?

  10. Rhyss says:

    I want to know more about the “peanut butter type environment.”

  11. humphrmi says:

    This is why I only buy kosher meats. In order to maintain their “mark”, plants have to have a Rabbi onsite at all times. The laws of kashrut are enforced fairly vigilantly, including cleanliness. Failed inspection = lose their mark = immedaite lost sales (because then the kosher grocery stores won’t carry them anymore, and that happens pretty quick). Big encouragement to stay clean.

    Yeah, there was a raid on a Kosher plant last year, that was regarding illegal immigrants working in the plant, something that the laws of kashrut don’t address… but since then the inspecting Rabbis have committed to keeping that issue on their radar too.

    • PirateCaptain_GitEmSteveDave says:

      @humphrmi: I watched a special on a Kosher bakery on tv, where they were making the challah bread, and the Rabbi wasn’t on site at all times. They were subject to a random inspection by him once a day though. He was very thorough in his inspection.

  12. GTI2.0 says:

    @humphrmi:

    You forgot meth. Meth ain’t kosher either:

    [jta.org]

  13. MooseOfReason says:

    That auditing firm should be taken to court and heavily fined.

    The same should be done with the FDA, a government-run agency, who ‘routinely’ makes the same mistake, without losing credibility.

    • doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

      @MooseOfReason: The FDA thanks in no small part to that ‘great’ president Reagan, is largely powerless to do anything except point out problems.

      They are unable to shut off a light in a plant, let alone an entire plant.
      Don’t take my word for it, look it up.

  14. HeartBurnKid, creepy morbid freak says:

    “I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it,” he said, declining to name the company.

    If you want to know the problem, that’s it in a nutshell. We need more whistleblowers.

  15. trujunglist says:

    @humphri

    LOL @ kosher meat being clean. I find it absolutely absurd that people think letting an animal wallow around in it’s own blood and filth as it bleeds out from getting it’s throat slit is clean.
    Also, I doubt that the Rabbi actually supervises the entire process of cutting up the meat and packaging it, but hey, if it gives you piece of mind then go for it.