Grocers claim audits reduce foodborne illness; no evidence provided

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association came out with a whopper that no one seems to have noticed.

In a press release intended to highlight private sector initiatives to bolster food safety – which I’m all for, they make the profit, they should shoulder the burden when they make their customers barf – GMA said,

“Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.”

There is absolutely no evidence to support that statement.

In case there is some confusion, here is the statement in full:

Third party audits are an important part of America’s food safety net.  To ensure rigor and integrity in third party certification, policymakers and industry leaders should encourage the engagement of auditors employed by certification bodies accredited to international standards by recognized organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). … By increasing the number of well-qualified auditors and developing universal food safety auditing criteria, industry leaders and policymakers will ensure that auditors are competent to review a particular facility, discourage duplicative audits, reduce auditing costs, and encourage wider use of third party certification/audits throughout the food industry. Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.

I’ve been hearing such statements for 15 years, and while it sounds good, I’ve seen little evidence to back such proclamations. As I’ve written before,

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 The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper.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.

If someone barfs, they’re going to go after the biggest name they can find, whether it’s a retailer or a processor. So protect that brand. Have your own people and some institutional expertise to assess food safety risks. And avoid unsubstantiated statements.

Grocers speak on food safety

I don’t really know Bob Brackett other than an annual chat when we run into each other at meetings. Years ago I started calling him the best-dressed man in food safety ‘cause he always wore a sharp suit.

Bracket started out in academia, established himself at the University of Georgia, then went to government as director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and then to industry as senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. That’s a lot of titles. And gives Bracket a credibility others can only talk about. This guy walks the talk, and has done it in various shoes.

Bracket writes in this morning’s N.Y. Times that the Grocery Manufacturers Association agrees with the Dec. 6, 2008 Times editorial that that the Food and Drug Administration should be given more resources and authority to prevent contamination of the nation’s food supplies.

Once in office, President-elect Barack Obama and his administration should commit to increasing annual food-related spending to $900 million by 2012 and should work with Congress to quickly modernize our food safety laws.

Specifically, the F.D.A. should be allowed to set and enforce safety standards for fruits and vegetables; require every food manufacturer to adopt, regularly update and make available for F.D.A. confirmation a food safety plan; and require food importers to document the steps they are taking to police their foreign suppliers.

By doing much more to prevent contamination — and by expanding and better targeting inspections — the next administration can immediately address the challenges of rising food imports and changing consumer preferences.

Good on ya.