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 much about how food is kept safe in the United States, they, at the least, have a vague idea that food is inspected by U.S. or state government inspectors.

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

Truth be told, government inspection and private third-party, food-safety auditing are two very different things. But the average consumer has no idea of the differences or that government inspection and private third-party auditing are conducted for very different reasons. Yet, the recent egg recall, the largest in American history, raised the specter of food-borne illness outbreaks taking place despite third-party, food-safety audits. A report to Congress about the recent giant Wright County Egg Co. egg recall in Iowa showed one of the egg-processing plants earned a superior rating from a food-safety auditing firm. While it was clear the auditing firm’s rating was issued two months before Wright was implicated as part of the egg recall, the fact that the source of the contamination was not linked to the processing plant was not made as clear as some thought it could have been. Auditing firms are responsible for ensuring only those practices their clients (food processors) instruct them to, usually by reviewing paperwork and production records.

Protection or oversight?
In a sense, an independent third-party auditor serves as a watchdog for a processor and its customers. It is the responsibility of the third-party auditor to make sure, for example, the company it buys ingredients from has a food safety plan and system in place.

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 earlier this year was linked to peanut products that made more than 600 people sick and possibly caused the deaths of as many as nine, had received a “superior” rating from its third-party auditing firm, but later was found to be producing peanut paste containingSalmonella.

How could it happen? While government inspection programs aim to find pathogens in food products wherever they are carrying out inspections, 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. For example, in the Wright County Egg incident, the U.S.D.A. had grading staff at the Wright County plants to inspect the size and quality of the eggs. When F.D.A. inspectors went into the egg plants, they found many unsanitary conditions that may have caused the sickness in consumers.

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 different activities. According to the U.S.D.A., inspection for wholesomeness and safety is mandatory under U.S. law. Grading is done for meat, poultry or egg quality, it is a voluntary activity and it’s financed by the meat, poultry and egg industries.

Focus on quality control
Egg graders at Wright County are looking for different things and are much less concerned about food safety and sanitation than food safety inspectors would be. 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 may be conflicts of interest in independent inspections. Customers may request audits of the suppliers of the products they are purchasing to process or sell.

Third-party auditing arose because of a belief in the food industry that better oversight was needed. This is especially true in the case of foods inspected by the F.D.A., which has a much lower and more infrequent level of inspection and oversight than the U.S.D.A.

“For U.S.D.A.-inspected foods, you have two levels of inspection – food-safety inspection by F.S.I.S. and quality inspection by the Agricultural Marketing Service,” said 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 U.S.D.A., which has both types of inspection carried out separately – food safety and quality – you have F.D.A. 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, rather than the company receiving the results, and that wants the supplying company checked. So economics works against the system being effective,” she said.

Pressure may 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 the F.D.A. is scheduled to be considered by Congress during its upcoming lame-duck session. FSM

The author is Washington correspondent for Meat & Poultry Magazine, a sister publication to the Food Safety Monitor, a publication also owned by Sosland Publishing.