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Conflicts of interest mar food producers' independent inspections
And auditors have a range of experience and qualifications, from recent college graduates to retired food industry veterans. They sometimes walk through a plant, ticking off a checklist to produce a score, Samadpour said. Basic inspections do not typically include microbial sampling for bacteria.
"It's purely designed as a kind of hoop you have to jump through to sell to so-and-so," he said. "Any good audits are purely incidental."
Federal officials say they are aware that the audits are a "mixed bag," said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. The FDA has the authority but not the resources to routinely inspect the estimated 150,000 food-processing plants in the United States or the 250,000 facilities abroad that supply U.S. consumers.
Still, the agency has proposed expanding the role of private auditors by accrediting them to inspect imported food products. On the domestic side, under pending legislation, the FDA could get additional resources and power and shift more responsibility onto food producers.
Top ratings before recalls
At a congressional hearing last month into the outbreak of salmonella illness that has sickened at least 1,800 people, staff investigators revealed that Wright County Egg, one of two Iowa farms at the center of the August egg recall, had received a "superior" rating from AIB International two months earlier. AIB also gave a "superior" rating two years ago to Peanut Corp. of America, which federal investigators have accused of knowingly selling peanut products contaminated with salmonella bacteria that sickened hundreds and killed at least nine.
Peanut Corp. of America, which is the target of a criminal investigation, filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2009, saying it was forced to close because of extensive recalls of its products. An attorney for company president Stewart Parnell did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Wright County Egg said the company will continue to use the auditor to inspect its egg-production facilities. "AIB is an excellent program," Hinda Mitchell said.
Wright County Egg also has said it is addressing conditions identified by FDA inspectors, who found piles of manure, live mice and dead maggots in company barns. AIB did not inspect the barns.
In a written response to questions, Brian Soddy, AIB's vice president of marketing and sales, said company audits are intended to give food manufacturers "guidance and education for improvement."
Producers have the ultimate responsibility, he said, adding that the audits are voluntary and not intended to replace any FDA regulatory inspections.
AIB said last week that it is reevaluating its "superior" and "excellent" rating systems because they "have led to confusion in the wake of recent incidents," Soddy wrote.
The company, one of the largest of the dozens of major auditors, conducts more than 10,000 audits of food manufacturing facilities annually, Soddy said.