Inspections and audits are never enough: Blue Bell Listeria-in-ice-cream version

Days after a foodborne illness was linked to Blue Bell ice cream products, a state inspection of an Oklahoma plant later tied to the infection praised the facility for having no violations and doing a “great job,” according to a copy of the inspection report.

listeria4Inspectors had no reason to check for listeria during the routine March 18 review as no problems were detected and the facility didn’t have a history of issues linked to the illness, said Stan Stromberg, director of the food safety division for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry..

“With an organism like listeria, you cannot do a visual inspection,” Stromberg said on Thursday.

Tainted Blue Bell ice cream products have sickened eight people — five in Kansas and three in Texas. Three of the five in Kansas have died and health officials there say listeria, also known as listeriosis, might have been a contributing factor in the deaths.

In the one-page report about the Oklahoma plant, provided to The Associated Press in response to an open records request, an inspector wrote “No Violations Observed!” and “Keep it up!”

Once again, most food safety is faith-based. At the market or the megalomart, mere mortals have no idea whether that lettuce or tomato or ice cream 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 15 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. 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.