Conflicts of interest mar food producers' independent inspections

A rash of food recalls, from peanuts to eggs, led to several deaths and new calls for a comprehensive food-safety bill, but it has become stalled in Congress. The recalls have also led many food growers and processors to hire private inspectors to protect themselves from lawsuits, but experts say the inspections are rife with flaws and often do not make products safer.
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 12:58 AM

The voluntary quality control system widely used in the nation's $1 trillion domestic food industry is rife with conflicts of interest, inexperienced auditors and cursory inspections that produce inflated ratings, according to food retail executives and other industry experts.

Recent outbreaks of salmonella illness tied to contaminated eggs and peanuts have focused new attention on weaknesses in the decades-old system, which relies on private-sector auditors hired by foodmakers.

With food-borne illness and recalls rising, the use of private inspectors has grown rapidly in the past decade as companies try to protect themselves from lawsuits and tainted products that can damage their brand names. But experts agree that the inspections often do not translate into safer products for consumers.

"It's a business strategy, not a public-health strategy," said David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush.

The system has developed primarily because large chain stores and food producers, such as Kellogg's, want assurances about the products they place on their shelves and the ingredients they use in making food. To get that, they often require that their suppliers undergo regular inspections by independent auditors. This all takes place outside any government involvement and without any signals - stamps of approval, for instance - to consumers.

In fact, most foodmakers, even those with problems, sail through their inspections, said Mansour Samadpour, who owns a food-testing firm that does not perform audits. "I have not seen a single company that has had an outbreak or recall that didn't have a series of audits with really high scores," he said.

That was the case with Wright County Egg and the Peanut Corp. of America, both linked to recent salmonella-related recalls. Months before the outbreaks, the same inspection firm gave both companies "superior" food-safety ratings, the highest possible for that type of audit.

Industry experts say that under the best circumstances the audits can be useful. But a key failure is that auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might fear they will lose business if they don't give high ratings.

And for the food suppliers, "if the incentive is to pass with flying colors, it creates a disincentive to air your dirty laundry and get dinged and lose a customer over it," said Will Daniels, who oversees food safety for Earthbound Farm, which was at the center of a food-poisoning outbreak from tainted spinach four years ago.

The system is also marred by other flaws, industry experts say.

Food companies often choose the cheapest auditors to minimize the added expense of inspections, which range from about $1,000 to more than $25,000.

The foodmakers can prepare for audits because they often know when inspectors will show up.

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