If you talk food safety, one of the common debates is the efficiency of government regulation compared to the efficiency of a more privatized system of compliance. What are consumers to do if neither one of them works? In the wake of Wright County Egg’s Salmonella outbreak and recall, both forms of food safety compliance are under sharp criticism. The company’s facility in and around Galt, Iowa had essentially gone unregulated by government officials, despite the USDA stamp being placed on the eggs. At Congressional hearings last week, it also became clear that the private third-party auditing firm hired to inspect the facility had provided the facility a “superior” rating in the midst of massive outbreak.

More alarming, as reported today by Elizabeth Weise, the audit company was the very same one that had given peanut product manufacturer PCA a superior rating while it was producing Salmonella tainted peanut butter that sickened hundreds and killed as many as nine. That outbreak also led to Congressional hearings that were supposed to spur reform. On some level, it’s hard not to laugh at one company having two of its “superior” ratings waived at its clients during grillings from Congresspeople. Except of course, it’s not funny.

Weise’s article recognizes a major issue with the third party audits, and their reliability – the fact that most of the time, companies are paying for their own audits. So, auditors have little incentive to give negative feedback, which in turn would be unlikely to lead to repeat business.  These criticisms aren’t new, having been raised in this forum, and elsewhere before. 

Hopefully, food producers will learn that it makes sense to pay for an audit that is actually reviewing the process, rather than rubber stamping- but it gets harder not be cynical with each new outbreak.