Effective inspections: Be kind and considerate

Conducting food safety inspections requires interpersonal skills and technical expertise. This requirement is particularly important for agencies that adopt a compliance assistance approach by encouraging inspectors to assist industry in finding solutions to violations.

george-carlin-honestyThis article describes a study of inspections that were conducted by inspectors from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Food and Dairy Division at small-scale processing facilities. Interactions between inspectors and small processors were explored through a qualitative, ethnographic approach using interviews and field observations. Inspectors emphasized the importance of interpersonal skills such as communication, patience, empathy, respect, and consideration in conducting inspections.

This article examines how these skills were applied, how inspectors felt they improved compliance, the experiences through which inspectors attained these skills, and the training for which they expressed a need. These results provide new insights into the core competencies required in conducting inspections, and they provide the groundwork for further research.

Interpersonal skills in the practice of food safety inspections: A study of compliance assistance

Journal of Environmental Health , December 2016, Volume 79, No. 5, 8–12

Jenifer Buckley, PhD


How to have fewer people barfing from food? Inspections and government are only one tool

It’s an easy story for beleaguered journalists: a belligerent government versus a belligerent union, with both making wild claims about food safety.

Lost in the rhetoric is any concern about the people who eat – pretty much all of us – and the people who barf.

The union representing federal food inspectors says Canada’s food safety system is being pushed beyond its limits.

restaurant.inspectionSome $35-million and 192 inspectors are on the food safety program’s chopping block over the next two years, according to online documents posted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The agency has also disbanded a team of inspectors dedicated to protecting consumers from food fraud throughout Metro Vancouver. The Consumer Protection Unit once boasted 11 inspectors, but that number dwindled to four due to attrition.

The federal health ministry referred questions to the CFIA, which responded to the union’s claims with a broad e-mail.

“The statements by the union are false. There have been no cuts to food safety. Canada has one of the safest and healthiest food systems in the world,” it said.

The agency acknowledged there have been recent changes to how it handles the Vancouver area.

Time to change the discussion and the approach to safe food. Time to lose the religion: audits and inspections are never enough.

• 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.

Ireland monthly restaurant closures; doing the same thing and expecting a different result is crazy

Every month about this time, Alan Reilly gets to roll out the same quote, saying he is disappointed in the high number of food business closures that month, adding something like,

“We continue to find unacceptable levels of non-compliance with food safety legislation. Time and time again, we encounter cases of food business BobbyJ2operators who are potentially putting their customers’ health at risk by not complying with their legal obligations for food safety and hygiene.

The chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland will then add something like, “There is absolutely no excuse for negligent practices. Food businesses must recognize that the legal onus is on them to make sure that the food they serve is safe to eat. This requires ongoing compliance with food safety and hygiene standards to ensure the food they are producing is safe to consume.”

It must be frustrating.

The March list of 11 closures and one prohibition order are available at:


Florida not inspecting food at hospitals, nursing homes

In a few weeks we’ll be leaving for a month of seaside (Gulf-side) writing in Florida.

As food safety dude and axman Roy Costa has pointed out, I sure hope I don’t end up in a Florida hospital, because no one is doing food inspections.

The Department of Health told Associated Press yesterday it’s working with other agencies to figure out who will handle inspections at the state’s 286 hospitals and 671 nursing homes. Meanwhile, the Department of Children & Families is temporarily taking over the inspection of day-care centers, which were also part of the cuts.

The health department had been inspecting facilities four times a year until Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill (HB 5311) stopping them. Experts say people at these facilities are the most vulnerable for foodborne illnesses.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon said his agency decided to fill the gap at day cares and will temporarily oversee inspections because “it was the right thing to do.”

DCF employees already inspect day-care facilities for safety issues. Sheldon said the Legislature was trying to consolidate inspections to prevent multiple state agencies from visiting the same facilities to inspect different standards.

The health department inspected more than 15,000 day-care centers last year, finding nearly 12,000 violations, including food from unsafe sources, poor hygiene and contaminated equipment.

I don’t really care who inspects as long as there is accountability in the system through — at a minimum — public availability of results and mandatory training for anyone who handles and prepares food.

A poem for public health

I’m surprised whenever an outbreak of foodborne illness is picked up in the U.S., except the most egregious violations of sanitation and safety, where large numbers of people are sickened.

Those investigations with people scattered across states, like the current E. coli O145 outbreak that has sickened over 50, are a testament to the skill, dedication of training of public and environmental health types.

Yet across the U.S., public health is taking budgetary hits as the trickle down of housing and financial collapse makes its way to the local level — states and counties are looking everywhere to balance the books.

A public health type penned and posted the following poem at http://randomleaves.blogspot.com/.

FIRST THEY VOTED to eliminate child care inspections
And I didn’t speak up because I didn’t have children

THEN THEY VOTED to stop inspecting food service establishments
And I didn’t speak up because another agency did those inspections

THEN THEY VOTED to get rid of nursing home and hospital inspectors
And I didn’t speak up because I worked in the OSTDS program

THEN THEY VOTED to abolish Environmental Health
And there was no one left to speak up


Canadian politicians beware: Maple Leaf’s Michael McCain isn’t really that into you

He may ooze empathy and smooth, but Canadian politicians on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food’s Subcommittee on Food Safety beware: Michael McCain (below, not exactly as shown) really isn’t that into you.

Sure he got dressed up for the committee appearance last night, prefaced it with a little foreplay at a luncheon for business types, and said I’m sorry, it was all me, but when a guy says that, he really means, it’s all you.

McCain just wants to get into your pants, or pants pockets, in the form of public tax dollars for inspections to ensure a future food safety façade so the profits at Maple Leaf Foods won’t be further inconvenienced by death and illness from deli meats.

McCain of Maple Leaf Foods has become the latest corporate type to ask for government help in the form of increased inspection. The dude from Kellogg’s did the same thing in the U.S., as did the growers of lettuce and spinach in California, and tomatoes in Florida. They all said the same thing: we can’t figure out how to provide a safe product while sucking in profits, so government, please, do it for us (that way, when there is an outbreak, we can at least say we met enhanced government standards). If anyone wants to know why government at best sets a minimal standard, read the testimony of Carole Swan, President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Dr. Brian Evans, Executive Vice-President of CFIA.

All of this is tragically embarrassing.

And this ain’t rocket surgery.

Opposition MPs praised McCain for taking responsibility for the tragedy and questioned whether the government should do more to accept part of the blame.

No. Stop being taken in by the fabulously handsome McCain. The best food producers and processors will go far beyond government standards to provide a safe product; they make the profit; they should make it safe. They should brag about it.

McCain told business leaders earlier on Monday, perhaps after a lunch of liquor and delicious deli meats, that the food industry "has to raise its game" because it doesn’t take food safety seriously enough.

“This industry has to raise its game. It has to take food safety more seriously, it has to invest more in food safety, and it has to improve its record of delivering safe food to consumers."

Wow. Sixteen years after Jack-in-the-Box and McCain and his $5.5 billion a year company discovers food safety after killing 21 people. He also felt it necessary to lecture parliamentarians and others that ‘poke and sniff’ methods of inspection were outdated. That rhetoric is at least 20-30 years outdated.

You know (a listener said my overuse of ‘you know’ on a Baltimore phone-in show yesterday was appalling and that as a professor lecturing to ‘glasses’ I should know better; I told him I had a voice for print and he should watch his spelling) Amy and I need people to help out with baby Sorenne. I’m not sure we need a village, but babysitters and friends are handy a few hours a week so we can slog through some work. Or shower. Sorenne is 4-months-old.

I’m somewhat baffled, however, when the so-called leaders of multi-billion dollar corporations or producer groups ask for babysitters in the form of government inspectors. Are your managers 4-month-olds that need someone to play ga-ga with? Help to get in their walker?

Canadian parliamentarians, stop being swooned by this guy. NDP MP Malcolm Allen said, “The only way you can get trust back with the public is through third-party verification.”

Apparently the star-struck Mr. Allen, thinking he was asking a tough question, showed himself as the star-struck girlfriend, who knows nothing about food safety, like the shitfest of third-party (non)verification at the Peanut Corporation of America plant which led to nine dead and 600 sick from Salmonella.

Here’s what is appalling about all this: no one, or at least me, expects anything but the bare minimum from government. The CFIA types can say they’re sorry all day, they’ll still have jobs and still go off for six-months of French lessons to move up in the Canadian government bureaucracy.

Michael McCain (above, exactly as shown), who runs that $5.5. billion a year company manufacturing products identified for decades at high risk of listeria, could stick with, yeah, we screwed up, we should have learned from all these past listeria outbreaks, we should have paid attention to the positive test results sitting in our filing cabinets, we’re sorry.

As Steve Martin once said, ‘But Noooooooooooo.’

Instead, McCain makes a big deal out of hiring a food safety dude after the fact, and lectures the rest of the industry and the country on what should be done; instead it’s like dating the worst kind of reformed smoker or born-again addict preaching to everyone else: forget minimal government regulations, forget the preaching, sell safe food. Listeria didn’t just come along 10, 20, 30 years ago, or yesterday, as you would have Canadians believe.

McCain, take care of your own shop, the one that happily makes money. Then maybe we can talk about another date.

Until then, I’m just not that into you.

Lessons from Wales; fallacy of food safety inspections

Do more inspectors make food safer?


The latest evidence is from Professor Hugh Pennington, who concluded in a report last week that serious failings at every step in the food chain allowed butcher William Tudor to start the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak, and that while the responsibility for the outbreak, “falls squarely on the shoulders of Tudor,” there was no shortage of errors.

Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan picked up on that theme yesterday and pledged to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of the E.coli outbreak of 2005 – for the sake of the families affected.

“Poor hygiene practices at the abattoir and the butcher’s premises” caused the outbreak, but he added,

“These failings were not dealt with effectively by the Meat Hygiene Service or local authority environmental health officers. …” Environmental health inspectors need to “sharpen up” and “drill down beyond the box-ticking part of the inspection process to the potential danger of the reality beyond.”

In his report Pennington said an inspector who made four pre-arranged visits to Tudor’s in the run-up to the outbreak, should not have allowed him to continue using one vacuum-packing machine for both raw and cooked meat because of the risk of cross contamination.

Among his 24 recommendations, Pennington said all checks should be unannounced, unless there were exceptional circumstances.

Don’t tell mom the babysitter’s dead.

Obama makes food safety statement: forms committee

U.S. President Barack Obama used his weekly radio – and YouTube – address today to bolster and reorganize the nation’s fractured food-safety system by forming a committee — the Food Safety Working Group.

President Clinton had a similar group 13 years ago.

Obama said,

“In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president, but as a parent.”

Me too. But when it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

In the initial parsing of the speech, the N.Y. Times reported,

Experts have long debated whether the F.D.A. should increase inspections or rely instead on private auditors and more detailed safety rules. By calling the limited number of government inspections an “unacceptable” public health hazard, Mr. Obama came down squarely on the side of increased government inspections.

Government inspections have a role. But it’s minimal compared to what industry can do. And FDA has no authority over farms, so problems with tomatoes, spinach and sprouts are not going to be solved by increasing inspections at processing plants.

Obama is excellent at setting tone, and that is the best that can be expected from this committee formation. Maybe it will send a message that everyone, from farm-to-fork, needs to get super-serious about providing microbiologically safe food. Maybe that will increase the safety of the food supply and result in fewer sick people.

Craig Hedberg, guest barfblogger: The most dangerous states for eating out-not!

On Friday March 14, 2008, Healthinspections.com published their ranking of the most dangerous states for eating out.  The ranking was based on an analysis of 2006 foodborne outbreak surveillance data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   The five most dangerous states for eating out, according to this analysis, were Florida, California, Minnesota, Ohio, and New York.   Florida and California were cited as having the most dangerous restaurants for the third year in a row.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Florida, California, and New York are three of the four largest states in the nation.  Ohio ranks 7th.  More people mean more restaurants.  More restaurants mean more outbreaks in restaurants.  It really is that simple. 

If you turn the number of outbreaks into a rate that compares outbreaks per million population, or outbreaks per 1,000 eating and drinking establishments (see table below) the rankings change.

As you can plainly see from this table, Minnesota is twice as dangerous for eating out as any of the other states, right? Wrong again.

Minnesota has the highest rate of reported outbreaks because it has the most aggressive and effective public health surveillance system for foodborne illnesses.  This is an example of the tree falling in the woods problem.  Falling trees generate sound waves, but if no one is there to hear them, they don’t generate any sound.  In Minnesota, we may not actually have more falling trees, but we’re out there listening for them.  

One important source for hearing about outbreaks in restaurants is from the restaurants themselves.  Because many environmental health specialists in Minnesota view themselves as teachers rather than enforcers, they take the time to get to know the restaurant operators and listen to their problems.  This, in turn, fosters a relationship of trust where restaurant operators actually report illness complaints to the local health department.  Outbreaks are identified, problems are corrected, and we all learn a little bit more about the constantly changing challenges of making food safe. 

In this ranking, being at the top of the list is a good thing.

Craig Hedberg is a foodborne disease epidemiologist and Associate Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Vermin violations

Restaurants and food venues at the California Angels baseball stadium have been cited by county health officials 118 times in the last 2 1⁄2 years for "vermin violations."

The Orange County Register reports,

"On 33 occasions, health inspectors spotted rodents crawling through Angel Stadium restaurants or found rat droppings in food-handling areas such as kitchen countertops or meat cutting boards. The number of violations is significantly higher than those found at other stadiums such as Dodger Stadium or San Diego’s Petco Park.

"A stadium practice of leaving food on the ground for up to 12 hours after a game may contribute to the problem, experts say."

In response, Garry Anderson of Anaheim Hills wrote to say,

"Why are the mom and pop stores having their licenses suspended until the problems are resolved, while Angel Stadium concessions remain open after repeated warnings to correct the problem? The concessions feed the rats and ignore inspectors; they should be treated the same as the mom and pop stores – shut down until the problems are resolved."

Good point. Over to you, local health unit.