If you mention food safety to Americans, the thought that probably crosses their minds in most cases is government inspection. While the average American may not know a lot about how food is kept safe in the United States, they at least have a vague idea that food is inspected by government inspectors, but they might not know whether the inspectors work for USDA, FDA or states.

But if you told the average consumer out there that much “inspection” is carried out by private companies, they would likely be surprised, or have no idea such “inspection” takes place.

Government inspection and private third-party, food-safety auditing are two very different things. The recent egg recall, the largest in American history, raised the specter of foodborne illness outbreaks taking place despite third-party, food-safety audits. A report in Congress about the recent Wright County Eggs Co. egg recall in Iowa showed one of the egg-processing plants had recently earned a “superior” rating from a food-safety auditing firm. While it was clear that the firm’s rating was issued two months before Wright was implicated as part of the egg recall, the distinction between auditing and inspection was a source of confusion. Third-party firms make it clear that “inspections” include a physical review of a facility to assess operations at a moment in time. Audits, on the other hand, ensure compliance with benchmarked standards, identify efficiencies, asess trends and are used to achieve certification.

Protection or oversight?
Companies producing food Americans eat use third-party audits to ensure their supplies contain no pathogens and is safe to process. In a sense, an independent third-party auditor serves as a watchdog for the processor and the retailer. It is the responsibility of the third-party auditor to make sure, for example, the company it buys ingredients from has a clean plant producing safe supplies.

But third-party audits are not the food-safety silver bullet many people might think. For example, according to USA Today, the Peanut Corporation of America’s Texas-based plant, which was linked to peanut products that made more than 600 people sick, had recently received a “superior” rating from its third-party auditing firm, but later was found to be producing peanut paste containingSalmonella.

How could that happen? While government inspection programs aim to find pathogens in food products, third-party auditors are hired by a company to ensure their supply chain is delivering safe products produced in sanitary environments. Ironically, third-party auditors have sprung up because many processors or retailers don’t believe the government inspection agencies are doing as good of a job as they should.

Part of the problem is in the eyes of the government – meat, poultry and egg inspection and meat, poultry and egg grading, for example, are two very different activities. According to USDA, inspection for wholesomeness and safety is mandatory under US law, and is paid for using US tax dollars. Grading is quality focused and is voluntary and financed by meat, poultry or egg producers or processors.

Focus on quality control
The other problem with auditing is it tends to be more of a voluntary quality-control system, where auditors are hired by food manufacturers. The goal may be directed more to protecting business than food safety. What results can be conflicts of interest in independent inspections.

“For USDA-inspected foods, you have two levels of inspection – foodsafety inspection by FSIS and quality inspection by the Agricultural Marketing Service,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “So, these [auditing] firms arose for what the food industry felt was a real need for better oversight.
“But unlike USDA, which has both types of inspection carried out separately – food safety and quality – you have FDA inspection and then inspection carried out by these third-party auditing companies.”

The major problem with third-party auditing is a built-in conflict of interest, according to DeWaal. “These auditing companies are often being paid by the food company being inspected by the auditor, not the food company receiving the food products. Of course, that results in a built-in conflict of interest, when you have the company being inspected paying for it. So economics works against the system being effective,” she says.

Pressure can mount for the audit to come out a certain way, rather than what is actually taking place at the plant. She believes there needs to be government oversight of the auditing companies. And customers should be paying for the audit, not the companies being audited or inspected. “Why would a company rehire an auditor if they’re given a bad review?” she retorts. Meanwhile, federal legislation designed to strengthen food inspection at FDA is scheduled to be considered by Congress during its upcoming lame-duck session.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.