Food companies often rely on outside auditors to make sure that the products they receive from suppliers are safe, but the practice is rife with conflicts of interest, USA Today reports.
Typically, the manufacturer of a store-ready product, such as a line of frozen lasagnas, will use these third-party auditors to ensure that the businesses further down the supply chain –the dairy farm producing the cheese in the lasagna, for example– are properly run.
Yet the system runs into problems when the producer further down on the chain is the one paying the auditor, as is usually the case, which places a great deal of pressure on auditors to come back with a favorable rating.
“If a company is purchasing the audit, they may be unwilling to pay for a bad result and unwilling to rehire an audit company that produces the negative audit,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, who works as the food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “For an audit to be truly meaningful, the auditor should be paid by the company that is the potential purchaser.”
Recent evidence of the flaws in this system abounds. Packing plants for Wright County Egg were given a superior rating just months before the company became part of the largest egg recall in U.S. history. When the Food and Drug Administration subsequently went to inspect Wright’s henhouses, inspectors found dead vermin and manure oozing out of doorways around the plant.
Peanut Corp. of America offers another example. It received a superior rating in 2008, a year before a salmonella outbreak tied to the company eventually sickened 600 people, and killed as many as nine.
Nonetheless, many food executives say the third-party auditors perform a necessary function, because government regulators don’t have the staff to inspect every factory and farm.