A study conducted by Bloomberg Markets has found that third party auditors hired by the food industry are not required by follow any federal standards and have no government supervision. Drew Kerr of Bloomberg Markets Magazine sent us the story and a statement about the study. He said, “it turns out some of the biggest food poisonings of the last few years were given sterling marks from the industry-paid auditors.”
The study, published in the November issue, details the illness of Nellie Napier, an 80-year-old grandmother of 13 who died in the 2009 King Nut Peanut Corporation Salmonella outbreak whose family is a client of Pritzker Olsen. She is one of nine people killed by the bacteria that also sickened 714 people in 46 states. AIB, the third party auditor that checked on Peanut Corp.’s Blakely plant the year before the outbreak, gave the plant a “superior” rating in 2008. Meanwhile, the Blakeley plant did not have an on-site manager for four months after that audit, allowing plenty of time for things to go wrong.
In 2009, FDA inspectors visited the plant and found dead cockroaches in a washroom and water stains from skylights over a packing line. Randy Napier, Nellie’s son, says, “the deeper we dig, the madder we get. These inspections should be made public. It’s just dollars and cents to the auditors. My mother wasn’t worth anything to them. I’m just shaking, I’m so angry.”
We’ve told you before about problems with third party audits, and concern over this problem by some in government. The Bloomberg study points out that in 2011, the FDA inspected just 6% of domestic food producers and only 0.4% of importers. More troubling, there are no rules for how often food producers must be inspected, and the third party auditors are not required by law to meet any federal standards. There is no government supervision of these audits, only guidance documents that have no legal enforcement weight.
There is also this twist: some of the auditors have board members who are top managers at their client’s companies. Third party auditors follow guidelines from industry trade groups, such as ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, and Walmart. The auditors often only check those areas their client (industry) asks them to review. Furthermore, the audits do not have to be made public. Bloomberg Markets obtained four audit reports and three certificates through court cases, congressional investigators, and company websites. They found that “six of the audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor, and a ground turkey plant – eight before or right after they supplied toxic food.”
While the FDA is trying to get control of food inspection back from industry, that agency estimates that it would need another $3 billion to properly conduct inspections on imported and domestic food. The agency’s total budget is currently $1 billion, and efforts are underway in Congress to cut it.
According to the study, Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group which does gtesting for the FDA, said that auditors follow a checklist that the company they’re inspecting helped write. “If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, ‘did you add as much as you intended?'” Samadpour says. “Most won’t ask, ‘Why the hell are we adding poison?'”
Earthbound Farm in California received high marks from Primus Labs in 2006, but their products caused an E. coli outbreak in 2006. Now that company does microbial tests and won’t allow shipments to leave the plant until test results show they are free of pathogens. The cost? Three cents a bag. Samdapour added, “it’s retailers and food service companies who have to say, ‘Here are three pennies for safety.’ Only a few do it. The rest pressure growers to cut costs, and safety is the first victim.”
Attorney Fred Pritzker said, “to promote food safety, everyone up and down the stream of commerce has to act and bear responsibility and should be held accountable for failing to do so.”