Though its products were not implicated in the recent peanut butter recall, the meat industry is facing some hard questions in the recall’s aftermath. At issue is the practice of using third-party auditors to inspect food operations, including meat plants.

The plant at the center of the peanut butter debacle, Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Ga., facility, had been examined by private inspectors, including a third-party inspector representing a major customer, Kellogg. It passed several audits. Only later did government inspectors discover "that the dilapidated plant was ravaged by Salmonella and had been shipping tainted peanuts and paste for at least nine months," reported the New York Times.

The meat industry uses third-party auditors to verify processing procedures, plant sanitation, animal-handling practices and other aspects of plant operation. Yet the effectiveness of these audits is debatable. The Hallmark/Westland meat plant in California that was at the center of the largest meat recall in U.S. history after a gruesome undercover video of brutal animal handling at the company was made public had passed 17 private audits in 2007 alone, according to records.

Robert LaBudde, the founder of Least Cost Formulations, who has been a third-party auditor in the past, told that such audits "have some usefulness, like a cop walking a beat. But typically, the people who get audited are the ones who pay for the audit, so it’s not in the interest of the auditor to be harsh. It’s a business, and like other businesses, the one who’s paying has a lot of control."

According to LaBudde, too many third-party audits are announced in advance. "That’s not useful," he said. "The reality is, people stop doing something they shouldn’t be doing when you walk up to them, but they start again as soon as you’re gone." He added that most auditors have no authority to levy fines or other consequences for bad plant practices or procedures.

Audits, he said, "if they’re not unannounced and there are no consequences, are cosmetic."

Government inspection works, he noted, "because USDA inspectors have the awareness, sensitivity and willingness to do something." Even so, he said he’s seen plant employees break the law – "like picking up a piece of meat from the floor and throwing it back into production" – right in front of inspectors. "That’ll get you an NR (non-compliance report) for sure, so why would an employee do that? Poor training is why."

Consequences – "pain" is the word LaBudde used – will cause change, but little else will. "Enlightened management can change attitudes too, but there’s not enough of that in the industry. The meat industry operates on pennies of profit, so it won’t change unless it has to. There’s too much risk in change." Changes in third-party auditing that he’d like to see include sending an auditor in to a plant ostensibly to audit one area of operations while another area is actually what’s being audited. He’d also like auditors to have some enforcement authority. Finally, there needs to be a better payment mechanism, he said, than having the companies being audited paying the auditors.

His own auditing business began drying up when fast-food and supermarket chains began using their own auditors to inspect suppliers. "It helps a franchised chain protect itself from lawsuits by franchisees. They’re scared to death of that, so they send in the auditors to make sure everything’s meeting spec."

To post your comments on this story, click here: