8 Horrifying Things We Learned From Bloomberg Report On Inept, Ineffective Food Inspectors

Image courtesy of (Darren Sethe)

During recent mass recalls of eggs and cantaloupe because of salmonella and listeria contamination, you heard a lot about FDA inspectors not catching this or that, and “How could no one notice all that filth?” Now a new report in Bloomberg Markets Magazine sheds a huge light at the sad state of food inspection in the U.S.

It’s a lengthy piece that is worth reading in its entirety — though it may put you off eating raw veggies for a while — and we couldn’t do it justice by trying to summarize it here, but we did pull out some of the more salient points:

1. The FDA doesn’t do anywhere near the amount of inspection you might think it does:

In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers. The FDA has had no rules for how often food producers must be inspected.

Instead, most “inspections” are done by third-party auditors who use guidelines crafted by the biggest name in food retail and agriculture.

2. Third-party inspectors often only check what they’re told to check:
A former auditor for a third-party company tells Bloomberg that auditors often award top safety ratings without ever testing for bacteria at production facilities, and that sometimes the auditors don’t even look at areas that they claim on their reports as safe.

“Most companies won’t let third-party auditors look for pathogens,” says the auditor. “They don’t want your results shutting them down.”

Adds a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, “Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless.”

A scientist at a lab that does testing for the FDA says that third-party auditors sometimes go by checklists provided by the very companies they’re supposed to be inspecting.

“If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, ‘Did you add as much as you intended?”’ he explains. “Most won’t ask, ‘Why the hell are we adding poison?”’

3. Some third-party inspectors don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “superior.”
Bloomberg found several incidents where a third-party auditor had given a company a clean bill of health shortly before that company being tied to an outbreak or recall.

There was Wright County Egg farms, which was tied to a recent massive recall of eggs, and which was rated “superior” twice in 2008 and four times in 2009. And then in June 2010, an auditor’s “Recognition of Achievement” states
the farm “was found to have fulfilled the requirements” of the auditing company’s standards.

Funny, because by then, the CDC had already been tracking the salmonella outbreak that would ultimately be traced back to Wright County.

And in Aug. 2010, only a few weeks after getting a glowing review from the auditor, the FDA found “Live and dead maggots too numerous to count.”

4. All these reports of food poisoning aren’t just media hype:

The rate of infections linked to foodborne salmonella, which causes the most illnesses and deaths, rose 10 percent from 2006 to 2010… The U.S. had 37 recalls of fruits and vegetables in 2011, up from two in 2005.

5. The FDA has tried to get more funding to do inspections:
In 2008 the agency asked to quadruple its budget for inspections to $4 billion, but the food industry lobby eventually won out, with the enactment of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, which wil allow the FDA to certify private companies to audit producers of imported food, but does nothing to improve inspections here in the U.S.

6. The boards of some third-party auditors are peopled with executives from client firms.
Bloomberg gives the example of one auditor — the same one that gave the “superior” ratings to Wright County — that has given the thumbs up to plants that should have failed. Executives from Flowers Foods Inc. (my beloved Tastykake) and Grupo Bimbo (Entenmann’s), Sara Lee and Wonder Bread have served on its board.

“There’s a fundamental conflict,” says former FDA commissioner David Kessler. “We all know about third-party audit conflicts. We’ve seen it play out in the financial world. You can’t be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.”

7. Since private audits don’t result in any reports to the FDA, problems can go unseen for years:
Nestle USA has its own inspectors for its vendors and twice, in 2002 and 2006, the company refused to use Peanut Corp. of America as a supplier after Nestle inspectors found rodent carcasses and pigeons in one of that vendor’s plants.

While that was all well and good for Nestle and its customers, since Nestle’s inspectors didn’t have to tell the FDA about their findings, Peanut Corp. continued on. It even got a “superior” rating in 2008 from an “independent” auditor.

Of course, in Jan. 2009, FDA inspectors actually visited the plant and found dead cockroaches in a washroom and water stains from skylights above a packing line, resulting of a recall of every single one of Peanut Corp.’s products for the previous two years.

8. You should really, cook that ground turkey to the recommended temperature of 165 degrees:

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.

You can check out the entire article at Bloomberg.com.

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