The world’s never going to be a totally safe place and sometimes there’s just no avoiding danger. That said, we still need to set high standards and hold producers accountable when it comes to the safety of our food supply.
This week, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a long and pretty scary story about problems with the current system of third-party audits of food producers. The U.S. had 37 fruit and vegetable recalls last year, some of which were at farms and food production facilities that, just days before, had been certified clean and safe, according to an August 2012 study titled “Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough.”
One of those was Jensen Farms in Colorado, whose tainted cantaloupes led to a listeria epidemic that killed 33 people last year and led to a 17-state recall that came not long after Jensen’s third-party auditor awarded the company a top safety certification that meant its melons could be sold at Wal-Mart Stores and Wegmans. Listeria and other foodborne pathogens such as salmonella sicken about 48 million Americans each year, killing some 3,000, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Third-party auditors are for-profit companies that sometimes have financial ties to executives at the companies they audit, and their reports are private documents that the food companies are under no obligation to share, the report says. Additionally, the audits have largely taken over the food-safety role of the cash-strapped Food and Drug Administration. “There’s a fundamental conflict,” says Dr. David Kessler, who was an FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997, and is now a physician and lawyer. “We all know about third-party audit conflicts. We’ve seen it play out in the financial world. You can’t be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.”
The FDA’s efforts to get the billions of dollars it needs to wrest control back from the private sector resulted instead in the Food Safety Modernization Act, which authorizes the FDA to approve third-party auditors to certify companies in other countries that export food to the U.S. The agency will be privy to those reports, but the act doesn’t do anything to open up audit reports on U.S. companies, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.
Meanwhile, the outbreaks continue and carry the potential to devastate a restaurant’s reputation. The Associated Press reported last week that public health officials in Vancouver, Wash., have confirmed 13 cases of salmonella and are investigating an additional 33 suspected cases that trace back to a single On the Border restaurant.
Do you worry about the safety of the produce your restaurant serves? Share your concerns in the comments.