Inspection and reality

I’m not a fan of focusing on food safety inspections or audits (and neither is Doug).  Sometimes it gets us plunked into the does-not-play-well-with-others category. That’s fine.  Here’s the deal: After playing hockey with government folks and talking to lots of inspectors I really like them.  I like the idea of what they’re trying to accomplish (and I’ll even try to set them up for open-net goals) but the whole concept of inspection as verification of actual food safety practices is flawed.

The theory behind inspection is that an operator (of a processing company, a restaurant, a church dinner, whatever) has a set of guidelines to follow to make and sell safe food. That part is fine. The inspector/auditor then comes in to tell them whether they are doing things right or not, and record that information. This is where it falls apart. That time the auditor/inspector spends in the facility represents an unrealistic snapshot of what actually happens.  Even if multiple inspectors show up to a facility over a period of time to gather more snapshots, what they see will likely be different. The human factor, around risk identification varies. Some inspectors really know the laws and regulations and risk is black and white. Others see the gray areas.  What’s more important to the health and safety of customers is what happens when the inspectors, or auditors, or the boss, aren’t there.

A couple of years ago, Brae Surgeoner and I interviewed restaurant operators and environmental health officers about their views regarding restaurant inspection. Almost all of the operators suggested that inspection was a good thing, and that they had a good relationship with EHOs.  And that’s when things got fun. Restaurant operators reported to us that what was being seen and recorded wasn’t representative of what was really happening with every meal.  They adjusted their personnel and their procedures so they looked good.  It’s kind of like an 8th grade house party with chaperones. Just pop and chips. But when the inspector leaves the party turns exciting. The best part of the study for us was that the inspectors reported the same thing: they felt they weren’t getting the full picture and knew everyone was on their best behavior while they were around (just like the parents).

So what’s to be done? The parents are part of it, but a block parent camped out checking that everyone’s breath doesn’t smell like peach schnapps isn’t the answer (because folks will find ways around it, like chewing lots of Juicy Fruit gum). The scare tactic of getting caught might work in the short term, but compelling operators to create a food safety culture, that will enhance their business is a better focus.

In this climate of uncertainty, it’s time for the really good peanut butter companies to step up, open their doors and show everyone how they prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. Not their inspection or audit results, but a compelling story on how they identify and control risks. This is where the biggest return on all those food safety dollars might be seen, especially if the company can back it up and start marketing it to their customers.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.