Losing my religion; faith-based safety has to go; audits and inspections are never enough

What started out as the Bite Me ’09 road trip halfway around the U.S. with Amy and 5-month-old Sorenne, has finally culminated in a paper being published.

Writing is hard.

But not as hard as Amy breastfeeding Sorenne while trapped in a car for hours.

Most food safety is faith-based. At the market or the megalomart, mere mortals have no idea whether that lettuce or tomato was raised in a microbiologically-aware environment. With each outbreak, more consumers are losing their religion.

Me, along with Ben Chapman, now an assistant professor at North Carolina State university, and Katija Morley (nee Blaine), who’s still busy with fruit and veg in Canada, have been doing the on-farm stuff for over 10 years and dealing with retailers and audits. But it was the January 2009 outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium linked to the Peanut Corporation of America that killed 9 people and sickened at least 714, when we decided we should organize our thoughts.

Because there wasn’t much in the peer-reviewed literature.

And we’re sorta big on the science stuff.

We also try to be credible, so I invited a few others to share their expertise.

Chuck Dodd serves in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and I had the fortunate opportunity to interact with Chuck while he was doing a PhD at Kansas State. He was most recently based in Germany and now in North Carolina. He’s seen a lot.

Roy Costa is a decent guitar player who is well-respected in food safety circles for his auditing prowess and incisive commentary.

Sol has worked with me for a shorter time, but her perspective as a graduate student in psychology at K-State has always been welcomed.

Together, we came out with a paper we could all (mostly) agree with and got it published. The main points are:

• food safety audits and inspections are a key component of the nation’s food safety system and their use will expand in the future, for both domestic and imported foodstuffs., but recent failures can be emotionally, physically and financially devastating to the victims and the businesses involved;

• many outbreaks involve firms that have had their food production systems verified and received acceptable ratings from food safety auditors or government inspectors;

• while inspectors and auditors play an active role in overseeing compliance, the burden for food safety lies primarily with food producers;

• there are lots of limitations with audits and inspections, just like with restaurants inspections, but with an estimated 48 million sick each year in the U.S., the question should be, how best to improve food safety?

• audit reports are only useful if the purchaser or  food producer reviews the results, understands the risks addressed by the standards and makes risk-reduction decisions based on the results;

• there appears to be a disconnect between what auditors provide (a snapshot) and what buyers believe they are doing (a full verification or certification of product and process);

• third-party audits are only one performance indicator and need to be supplemented with microbial testing, second-party audits of suppliers and the in-house capacity to meaningfully assess the results of audits and inspections;

• companies who blame the auditor or inspector for outbreaks of foodborne illness should also blame themselves;

• assessing food-handling practices of staff through internal observations, externally-led evaluations, and audit and inspection results can provide indicators of a food safety culture; and,

• the use of audits to help create, improve, and maintain a genuine food safety culture holds the most promise in preventing foodborne illness and safeguarding public health.

Audits and inspections are never enough: A critique to enhance food safety


Food Control

D.A. Powell, S. Erdozain, C. Dodd, R. Costa, K. Morley, B.J. Chapman



Internal and external food safety audits are conducted to assess the safety and quality of food including on-farm production, manufacturing practices, sanitation, and hygiene. Some auditors are direct stakeholders that are employed by food establishments to conduct internal audits, while other auditors may represent the interests of a second-party purchaser or a third-party auditing agency. Some buyers conduct their own audits or additional testing, while some buyers trust the results of third-party audits or inspections. Third-party auditors, however, use various food safety audit standards and most do not have a vested interest in the products being sold. Audits are conducted under a proprietary standard, while food safety inspections are generally conducted within a legal framework. There have been many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food processors that have passed third-party audits and inspections, raising questions about the utility of both. Supporters argue third-party audits are a way to ensure food safety in an era of dwindling economic resources. Critics contend that while external audits and inspections can be a valuable tool to help ensure safe food, such activities represent only a snapshot in time. This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.

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About Doug Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of barfblog.com, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here.