America suffers when food plant audits fall short

Articles
March 17, 2009

America suffers when food plant audits fall short

When is a food plant audit not really a top-notch food plant audit? When a food brand marketer pays a private inspector $1,000 to review a supplier’s plant that FDA would spend $8,000 to examine (if they got around to it). Or when a private inspector is paid by the company being inspected, or lacks expertise in a particular kind of food manufactured, or is only given the time and cooperation to do a cursory exam. Each of these compromises arise too often for private inspectors to provide a secure safety net for FDA, whose own investigators have fallen in numbers and are running behind current demand for their insights and clout. Innocents across the United States have paid the price of food safety gaps that have needlessly killed and diseased in recent years. So far spinach, beef, children’s snacks, peanuts and pet food have had high-profile problems. Yet threats to public safety are bound to emerge more frequently with the inadequate oversight left over from the Bush administration.

When is a food plant audit not really a top-notch food plant audit?

When a food brand marketer pays a private inspector $1,000 to review a supplier’s plant that FDA would spend $8,000 to examine (if they got around to it).

Or when a private inspector is paid by the company being inspected, or lacks expertise in a particular kind of food manufactured, or is only given the time and cooperation to do a cursory exam.

Each of these compromises arise too often for private inspectors to provide a secure safety net for FDA, whose own investigators have fallen in numbers and are running behind current demand for their insights and clout.

Innocents across the United States have paid the price of food safety gaps that have needlessly killed and diseased in recent years. So far spinach, beef, children’s snacks, peanuts and pet food have had high-profile problems. Yet threats to public safety are bound to emerge more frequently with the inadequate oversight left over from the Bush administration.

An attempt to help quell any health risks from food imports had FDA propose “expanding the role of private auditors to inspect the more than 200,000 foreign facilities that ship food to the U.S.,” noted a recent New York Times report on the shortcomings of third-party audits. “The agency has proposed a voluntary certification program that would toughen audit standards and alert federal authorities of problems—an idea that has met stiff resistance from the food industry.”

Perhaps a similar program for domestic inspections also makes sense, believes SupermarketGuru.com. With standard procedures to follow, a broader knowledge base, and the backing of companies and the FDA who would hire them, private inspectors could be more respected, more powerful, more savvy and hopefully more independent of the plant operators they inspect. What good are inspections if compromises riddle their integrity, we ask.

It’s clearly not enough that companies use private inspectors to minimize liability. Though some, the Times pointed out, “use detailed plans to prevent food safety hazards…and supplement third-party audits with their own inspections and testing of ingredients and plant surfaces for microbes,” many don’t.  And those that do would probably prefer that inspections be comprehensive enough that they wouldn’t have to undertake these efforts.   

By making private inspectors better, and standardizing a more rigorous process by which plants would have to abide, the federal government could make great strides quickly in tightening this most important safety net for our nation’s food pipeline.