Audits do not enhance food safety culture

“After the PCA (Peanut Corporation of America) plant, you had all the employees saying [the PCA facility] was a dump. It would have been nice for them to say that before nine people died.”

That’s what I told a student reporter for the Kansas State Collegian in this morning’s issue.

The reporter, Tyler Sharp, has been working on a story about Manhattan’s own American Institute of Baking, the auditor at the center of the PCA Salmonella fiasco, for weeks, and had trouble finding anyone to talk. After a March 6, 2009 article in the N.Y. Times sorta shattered the myth of third-party food safety audits, Tyler figured the homegrown story would be a no-brainer. Except he couldn’t get anyone to talk.

Since the release of the Times article, AIB now requires a minimum of two days or longer to complete an inspection at a food processing facility. AIB has also announced it will change the name of its Good Manufacturing Practices inspection certificates from “Certificate of Achievement” to “Recognition of Achievement.”

Is that like Homer Simpson winning the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence?

I told Tyler, the reporter,

“Third-party food audits, like restaurant inspection, are a snapshot in time. They are not indicative of what happens day in and day out. It doesn’t really tell you much. There are some audits that are OK. It depends on the auditor. My concern is that — and I have done a lot of work with farmers and producers and companies — what you really want is to help people become better with food safety, whereas an audit is just a checklist that penalizes people. That doesn’t necessarily help people get better with food safety.”

The third-party food safety audit scheme that processors and retailers insisted upon is no better than a financial Ponzi scheme. The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper. Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers rather than the local/natural/organic hucksterism is a way to further reinforce the food safety culture.

Costco, a retail store, which previously limited AIB’s inspections to its bakery vendors, has now instructed suppliers to not use AIB at all.

“The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Or as Mansour Samadpour of Seattle says,

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education.”