By Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown
Many of the most notorious food-illness outbreaks in recent years were preceded by glowing private safety audits of the producers, prompting calls for oversight of auditors and forcing grocery chains to tighten screening of cantaloupes and other food.
An inspector hired by Jensen Farms gave the cantaloupe operation a "superior" safety rating the same month contaminated melons were sorted by an unsanitary potato machine and sent to stores. Probing the subsequent listeria outbreak that has killed 28, Food and Drug Administration inspectors found multiple problems, and experts say an auditor should have flagged the issues.
It was only the latest incident when a "third-party" audit — slammed as an inherent conflict of interest by safety experts — failed to note deadly mistakes in a food operation.
- Nine people died and thousands were sickened after a salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corporation of America in late 2008. Investigators found goods were shipped despite positive pathogen tests, as well as rodents, leaking roofs and extensive mold. An auditor before the outbreak gave the company the "superior" nod.
- FDA inspectors found filthy conditions, from overflowing manure to maggot infestations, at two Iowa farms where hundreds of millions of eggs were recalled last year. Court files show "Record of Achievement" audit certificates before the salmonella outbreaks.
- Earthbound Farm regularly got passing audits before an E. coli outbreak in greens was traced to the farm. The 2006 outbreak sickened hundreds and contributed to three deaths.
- In 2007, after an E. coli outbreak was traced to frozen beef patties from Topps Meat in New Jersey, federal inspectors found multiple problems. The company's vice president questioned "why and how personnel from his company, outside auditors or consultants failed to find these noncompliances," according to a 2007 USDA document.
- And in a 2007 salmonella outbreak linked to Veggie Booty snacks, a third-party audit swabbed the manufacturing plant for salmonella but found none. Federal inspectors later found the bacteria in snack seasoning.
Few government inspectors
Farms or buyers hire the auditors in the absence of enough federal or state inspectors to make rounds, a cobbled- together system critics call an obvious conflict that must now change.
But food experts trying to sort out new FDA powers under a 2011 act were disappointed to learn domestic audits aren't covered. And they fear congressional budget battles will severely underfund those efforts.
"It's a system that doesn't appreciate truth-telling, even when human lives are at stake," said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C.
Jensen got 96 points out of 100 in its audit.
Food producers buying allegedly independent audits is a major flaw in the U.S. food system, critics say.
"I cannot think of one private audit that I've ever seen in 20 years that said, 'These are bad things, fix them,' " said Bill Marler, a leading food-safety attorney who so far is representing 26 people injured or killed by the deadly cantaloupes. A private auditor is not going to list a farm's flaws, tell it to shut down, then say, "I finished my audit — can I have my $2,000?" he said.
The gap between private audits that come before an outbreak and the FDA reports that come after is stark, said Marler, who has represented poisoning victims for two decades.
"The question you would ask is, 'Are we talking about the same place?' " he said.
Even if an auditor makes strict recommendations to its client, follow-up corrections are not always mandated. One example of that comes from the 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to a Nebraska Beef plant in Omaha.
Federal inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the plant had not followed cleanup recommendations by third-party auditors. Among problems cited by federal documents: caked fecal matter still clung to animal hides before slaughter.
"These audits are not a substitute for safety," said Fred Pritzker, a food- illness attorney in Minneapolis.
The Jensen auditor, PrimusLabs, used a form of review where one year's suggested changes are not checked until the next year's inspection, according to copies of the last two years' audits provided to The Denver Post. PrimusLabs president Bob Stovicek defends the Jen sen audit, conducted by a subcontractor.
Companies can pay for a higher level of audit, Stovicek said, where the review is not complete until the producer makes corrections and posts them online. That online file is checked by an audit oversight group and is available to the buyer.
Retailers debate fixes
Many food experts say grocery stores — not food suppliers — should be hiring the auditors.
Since the peanut salmonella outbreak in late 2008, retailers have debated improvements to the system. One hurdle is that farms and factories don't have time to deal with numerous inspector visits, said Gerald Wojtala, executive director of the International Food Protection Training Institute, based in Michigan.
A possible solution is to have the FDA credential private auditors meeting its standards. Then grocery store chains would rely on those auditors.
Wojtala, whose institute has a grant from the FDA to help train inspectors, said he expects the federal government to one day take those measures.
The FDA says, however, that while the 2011 Food Modernization Safety Act gave it more power over auditors handling imported foods, it has no new authority on domestic auditors. In the past, the auditing industry and distributors have strongly resisted tougher FDA powers.
The Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for grocery stores, has a subsidiary devoted entirely to food safety. The Safe Quality Food Institute trains private auditors to match the institute's quality standards. Farms and other food suppliers seek out the institute's rating, which makes them more attractive to grocery stores.
Jensen Farms would not have passed an audit from an institute-trained inspector, said Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs.
"They slipped through the system, unfortunately," Thesmar said.
Grocers are re-examining their supply systems in the wake of 28 deaths and cantaloupe's ruined reputation as a result of the Jensen Farms listeria.
Costco will require its cantaloupes to pass a "test and hold" program before they make it to the produce department, meaning a few sample cantaloupes per shipment will be swabbed for bacteria. The load won't ship until lab tests clear.
"That is greatly going to improve the overall food quality in the marketplace," said Craig Wilson, head of safety for the retailer.
Whole Foods is considering adding pathogen testing of food and water at farms, and demanding audits of more produce growers and handlers. The grocer already requires audits in foods with past problems, including sprouts and salad mixes, a spokeswoman said.
Costco uses just nine third-party auditors out of the 120 to 130 available, Wilson said. Every food item in Costco stores comes from a producer inspected by one of those nine auditors.
"The audits that are done are incredibly thorough," Wilson said.
Wilson is among those who would support an FDA certification program of all auditors inspecting food along the supply chain.
"The real key to this is audit-company responsibility," he said. "Are they going to step in and help sort out the problem?"
Other grocery store chains were less willing to answer questions about their use of private auditors. Walmart and Safeway officials said they were always looking for ways to improve food safety but wouldn't elaborate.
Colorado cantaloupe growers are considering banding together with state experts to create a certification system for their threatened crop. Such a system may cost more — either in farmer fees or the state finding more inspection money — but others note how much money is wasted on food-illness outbreaks.
Injury attorneys estimate the Colorado cantaloupe cases alone may result in more than $150 million in judgments or settlements against Jensen Farms, its deeper-pocket distributors and the auditors.