Thu August 16, 2012

Little Accountability In Food Safety Audits

The deadly listeria outbreak at Jensen Farms last fall illustrates wider failures in the private food safety auditing industry, an industry which operates with little government oversight.

Almost a year later, these failures remain unaddressed by lawmakers, regulators, and the industry itself.

Those who ate Jensen’s cantaloupes bought them from stores like Walmart and Kroger, retailers who require audits of food producers, to verify that the food they sell is safe to eat. But it is food producers – like Jensen Farms – that pay for the audits.

Critics say this is an inherent conflict of interest, as it’s unlikely auditors would fail those who commission their services. David Acheson, former associate commissioner of foods for the Food and Drug Administration, said understanding the results of an audit can be especially challenging for small farms.

“If I give someone a failing grade, there’s no way they’re going to invite me back next year,” Acheson said, adding that high scores like the one Bio Food Safety awarded Jensen can instill a false sense of security.

“They (Jensen Farms) are going to think ‘Wow, we’re good,’” he said. “And why would they not think that? They aren’t real thirsty to hear that they have problems.”

Many inspection companies set their own standards, and do not always conduct the work themselves. Instead, they contract the workout to independent auditors like Bio Food Safety. Industry experts and contract auditors say subcontracting can be problematic because training requirements between firms and individuals vary.

For that reason, private auditing firm Steritech doesn’t rely on contract auditors, its CEO Mark Jarvis said. Based in North Carolina, Steritech conducts about 2,000 audits annually.

"If I give someone a failing grade, there's no way they're going to invite me back next year,"

“What makes us different is that all of our people are full-time employees,” Jarvis said. “(Using subcontractors) is a huge achilles heel in the whole industry.”

Several contract auditors said in separate interviews that training standards vary according to an inspection company’s internal practices. Some reported lax hiring standards, while others said they were subjected to more rigorous reviews and background checks.

New Jersey-based contract auditor David Strait, for instance, recalled how two auditing companies had only asked for his resume before offering him some contract audits, without meeting or training him personally.


Read More: Charges Loom As Jensen Farms Listeria Investigation Nears End

Anatomy of an outbreak: Jensen Farms

  • July 25, 2011: James DiIorio inspects Jensen Farms, and awards them a “superior” rating
  • Aug. 29, 2011: First reports of sickness
  • Sept. 10, 2011: FDA investigators collect lab samples at Jensen Farms
  • Sept. 14, 2011: FDA announces voluntary recall of cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms
  • Oct. 2011: At least one subpoena issued by U.S. Attorney’s Office for a federal grand jury investigation
  • Oct. 18, 2011: FDA issues warning letter to Jensen Farms
  • Oct. 19, 2011: FDA releases report assessing potential causes of listeria contamination at Jensen Farms
  • Oct. 21, 2011: House Energy and Commerce Committee begins Congressional inquiry with a meeting request sent to Ryan and Eric Jensen
  • Dec. 8, 2011: CDC issues final report: 146 people sickened, 30 dead and one miscarriage
  • Jan. 10, 2012: Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce issues open letter urging FDAto address problems in third party auditing industry; releases results of Congressional investigation into listeria outbreak
  • May 25, 2012: Jensen Farms files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
  • July 18, 2012: Investigator from the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations collects medical records of victims to the outbreak
  • July 27, 2012: Bio Food Safety files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
  • Sept. 14, 2012: Deadline for victims of the outbreak to submit claims to the court: one year after Jensen Farms recall