Grade Inflation Really Matters If It Means You Catch Listeria

Today, government officials, academics, and the cantaloupe industry are meeting at the University of California, Davis, to try to determine how the 2011 Listeria outbreak could have begun at a facility that had just received a "superior" rating from a third-party food safety auditor.   A report issued earlier this week places the blame squarely on the third-party audit system, which allows private companies hired by food producers themselves to perform food safety inspections.  

Jensen Farms hired its auditor, which in turn hired a subcontractor, off a list provided by one of its large buyers. According to the report, that subcontractor visited Jensen Farms on July 25, 2011, and found three "major deficiencies," three "minor deficiencies," and five "additional instances of non-compliance." Even so, Jensen Farms was given a grade of 96%, which is considered a "superior" rating. 
The front page of the audit report said, "This is a packing facility for cantaloupes which are washed by a spraybar roller system, graded, sorted by size, packed into cartons and stored in dry coolers. No anti-microbial solution is injected into the water of the wash station." The problem with this is that FDA guidance says that melon producers need to use an anti-microbial solution in their washing water – and its absence from Jensen Farms' facility is one of the conditions FDA says led to the listeriosis outbreak.
This report shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone: third-party audits often fail to catch food safety problems. As Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee pointed out in a letter to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg: 
  • In 2009, a third-party auditor gave a peanut butter company a "superior" rating only six months before Salmonella in its products killed nine people and made 691 others sick.
  • In 2010, a third-party auditor gave an egg company not only a "superior" rating, but also a "recognition of achievement" two months before a Salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,600 people and led to the largest egg recall in American history.
"Like it or not, our food safety system relies heavily on third-party auditors," that letter continued. While federal inspections of food producers are becoming more frequent because of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FDA still doesn't have the resources to send inspectors out to producers like Jensen Farms more often than every three to five years. In the meantime, major food retailers often require producers to hire third-party auditors, which are private companies not subject to any FDA regulations.  FSMA requires FDA to develop an accreditation system and model audit guidelines – but only for third-party audits of imported foods, though industry officials say the new standards are likely to "influence" domestic audits, as well.
Right now, it's not hard to pass a third-party audit: in fact, the company Jensen Farms hired gave out passing grades 98.7% of the time in 2010. With results like we've seen over the past few years, it's hard to figure out why Congress hasn't given FDA the resources to send federal inspectors to food production facilities more often – or at least to more closely oversee the third-party auditors who are supposed to be filling in the gaps.
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