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]