As the industry considers how to improve the safety of the food supply following the seemingly endless peanut-product recalls — now established as the most widespread recall in U.S. history — one area that should be examined is the third-party auditing system.
Third-party safety audits have long played an important role in ensuring the integrity of food, and will continue to do so. Retailers are increasingly relying on auditing firms to vet their private-label suppliers, while manufacturers use them to inspect their ingredient suppliers. Even the federal government is looking at asking private auditors to fill in the gaps in its inspection capabilities.
But questionable audits of the Georgia and Texas peanut-processing plants operated by Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) — the company the Food and Drug Administration identified as the cause of the recalls — have drawn the attention of Congress and the mass media. One auditing firm in particular, AIB International, raised eyebrows by granting superior ratings to those plants. (Click on "Peanut Recalls Spark Scrutiny of Audit Firms" for the story.)
The weaknesses of third-party audits have long been understood. In fact, Jill Hollingsworth, group vice president, food safety, Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute, a division of Food Marketing Institute, told me that the global food safety standards that her organization oversees were developed “because we recognized that traditional auditing systems are inadequate for assessing how well a company is implementing food safety programs.”
SQF and the other groups affiliated under the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) have indeed added rigor and thoroughness to the audits conducted under their name.
But there are several ways that the third-party audit system could still be improved. One of the troubling aspects of the PCA audits conducted by AIB — and a common characteristic of third-party audits — is that the plants knew in advance when they would be audited. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted one employee at PCA's Georgia facility as saying that the only time the plant was thoroughly sanitized was before the anticipated annual inspections by AIB.
One argument for giving advance notice is so that the right plant employees will be available when auditors arrive for an inspection. But if enough employees are prepared to serve in that role, auditors would be able to make surprise visits that would allow them to witness more typical conditions.
It is also common for auditing companies to be paid by the companies they are auditing. This strikes me as interfering with the ability of the auditing firm to render an impartial judgment, since future auditing opportunities at a company may be impacted by a negative review.
One alternative payment mechanism was suggested by Jim Prevor, who writes the “Perishable Pundit” online blog. He said an industry association could put together a “pool organization” that would “pay for an acceptable audit.”
Increasing the separation between auditor and auditee would help improve the perception of impartiality and would make audits a more effective tool in preventing foodborne illnesses.