The role of food safety auditors?

Any time I write anything marginally critical of food safety auditors, my in-box is flooded with comments about how auditors aren’t inspectors, they’re just doing a job, I’m a propeller-head, and how unfair it all is.

If those audits are really worth something, market them at retail so consumers can choose.

Here are some other voices:

Tom Karst of The Packer writes that given the failure of third-party audits to pinpoint potential food safety problems in recent cases involving German sprouts, Georgia peanuts and Colorado cantaloupe, some primary handlers of produce might be considering sending in their own teams to inspect suppliers.

“I am hearing from a few of the larger produce organizations (first handlers) is that is what they are going back to,” said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. “They are not trusting the third-party audits and they are going out and doing their own inspections as well to verify if the third-party (inspectors) are doing a good job.”

My group has been saying that since about 1998.

In light of recent outbreaks, some growers question the value of audits, said Chris Schlect, president of the of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.Gombas said the services auditors offer vary greatly — one of the biggest issues to resolve in the industry.

While the FDA is charged with developing a process to accredit third-party auditors in foreign countries under the new Food Safety Modernizaton Act, Gombas predicts FDA will find it hard to rely on third-party audits.

“Everyone is looking for FDA to come up with a solution, but I don’t know if they have any better answers than we do,” he said.

He noted the United Fresh effort to harmonize Good Agricultural Practices did not address third-party auditor certification.

“We knew that the harmonzied standard was a tough enough goal to achieve.”
The Global Food Safety Initiative which begin in 2000 and was designed to harmonize audit standards in Europe — still hasn’t solved that issue.

Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers and Scott Horsfall president and CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, wrote to the Packer to say it has become very clear that a truly effective food safety program is about much more than the score you receive from your food safety inspector and that the true measure of success does not come from an audit score but is achieved when an entire commodity group or industry adopts a culture of food safety that is designed to identify risks, strives for continual improvement and always seeks to learn more.

Jim Crawford wrote to the Denver Post to say that the private-sector food safety auditor who gave a near-perfect score to Jensen Farms’ listeria-contaminated cantaloupe-packing process is subject to no Food and Drug Administration oversight, or to any other regulatory accountability. The article notes that this is the case with the entire third-party food-safety auditing industry.