By Michael Booth
A congressional committee's probe of the deadly Colorado listeria outbreak in cantaloupe blames Jensen Farms and a third-party audit system riddled by inherent conflicts of interest.
Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin overseeing private auditors with new powers granted in 2011 and said the private audit firms "represent a significant gap in the food safety system."
The report goes well beyond blaming Jensen and auditors Primus Labs and Bio Food Safety for conflicts rising when a food company pays auditors while seeking high marks. It also blasts Bio Food Safety for allegedly recommending some of the changes to Jensen's melon-packing system that led to 30 deaths and one miscarriage nationwide.
An FDA official who briefed the committee "stated that it was an inherent conflict of interest" for an auditor to provide that kind of advice, which should come from independent consultants, according to the committee report.
The report also notes that distributor Frontera Produce and Jensen had ample notice of the private auditors' visits and discussed how to handle them. The auditor ended up giving the Jensens a 96 percent positive score, just before contaminated melons were shipped.
When FDA and state investigators searched and swabbed the packing shed in September, they found numerous safety problems, cited in an official warning letter.
Critics of current food-safety rules said the report is more proof the government needs to step up inspections and testing, instead of relying on the food industry to police itself while hiring third-party auditors to give a biased seal of approval.
"The take-home of this is they are not a substitute for government inspection. They don't do the same things, they don't produce the same results, and they don't lead to food safety," said Amanda Hitt of the Food Integrity Campaign in Washington, D.C.
Glowing third-party audits also preceded major food-illness outbreaks from contaminated eggs in 2010 and peanuts in 2009.
Elsewhere in the report, Jensen Farms, the auditors, Frontera Produce and the FDA trade blame for the conditions that led to the listeria outbreak in August.
Eric and Ryan Jensen told the committee they thought they were making their system safer by substituting a bacteria-killing chlorine pool with a one-pass system using clean water to wash melons. The FDA had said problems with the change were compounded by handling the melons on a used machine meant for washing potatoes, which are not eaten raw.
The Jensens said some of the changes were suggested by a Bio Food Safety auditor and that Frontera visited the farm multiple times without questioning the changes. The Jensens did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Auditors questioned by the staff protested they had no authority to enforce FDA regulations and that even then, the FDA has "guidelines" for melon growing but not mandatory washing rules.
Frontera told the committee there aren't enough standards for third-party auditors, which are not regulated by the FDA.
FDA staff told the committee "the outbreak could have likely been prevented if Jensen Farms had maintained its facilities in accordance with existing FDA guidance," the report said. But the FDA guidance from 2009 notes potential safety problems with many forms of melon sanitation, without strongly recommending one solution.
The report notes that even in the rare cases when private auditors note flaws in their reports, they have no follow-up system to see if farms or packers correct those problems.
"It is critical the FDA take these learnings, and those from their own investigation, and take action to address the failings of the third-party-audit system," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who is on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
An FDA statement said the agency "shares the Committee's concerns" and "expects to publish in the future proposed food safety standards for farms that will go a long way toward improving food safety practices."
"There are a number of elements of the proposed rule that, had Jensen Farms been in compliance, would have significantly reduced the risk of that outbreak occurring," the FDA said.
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act gives the FDA power for the first time to monitor imported foods by certifying international auditors. The committee asked the FDA to extend those new rules to domestic auditors as widely as possible.
Numerous private lawsuits have been filed against Jensen Farms, Frontera and the auditors by victims of the 28-state outbreak. The deaths were the worst total from a food-borne illness since early in the 1900s.
Federal investigators are still considering penalties against the farm, which could include criminal prosecution for violations of food-safety laws.