BALTIMORE — The responsibilities of food safety auditors, brought into the spotlight by the deadly cantaloupe-related listeria outbreak of 2011, are increasing as their customers and the courts review who is liable in foodborne illness outbreaks.
About 250 attendees at the annual Food Safety Summit April 8-10 participated in a “hot topics” discussion session where third-party audits were center stage. Consultants, lawyers, academics and members of the fresh produce industry at the session all said auditors should be held accountable if they approve operations that are later implicated in outbreaks.
“Primus is a landmark case,” said Patricia Wester, former auditor and president of PA Wester Consulting, referring to more than 60 civil cases that have been filed against Primus Group Inc. in relation to the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33.
Wester said auditors should not only be held liable for approving inadequate systems, but there should be sector-specific training for them and some kind of calibration of audits to ensure they do what they are intended to do.
A member of the audience agreed with Wester’s comments and described an inconsistency at her business. The attendee said a hole in the ceiling that had been overlooked by food safety auditors for five years was suddenly an issue when a different auditor visited.
Such inconsistencies could be partially resolved with a move away from checklist auditing, said Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief quality officer for ConAgra Foods Inc. She said critical thinking questions and quantitative risk analysis would be a better way to go.
“Our in-house audit team shuts down lines and whole plants when they see something. External auditors have never shut down our lines or plants,” said Menke-Schaenzer, who is on the board of NSF and was previously vice president for food safety for Wal-Mart.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who represents more than 40 victims and victims’ families in civil cases related to the 2011 cantaloupe-related listeria outbreak, said during the hot topic session that a recent ruling by a federal judge in Oklahoma shows a “fundamental change.”
Judge David Russell refused to dismiss Primus from a lawsuit related to the 2011 listeria outbreak saying it had a responsibility to consumers. A subcontractor for Primus gave the cantaloupe grower-packer Jensen Farms a score of 96% on an audit of its packing shed days before the 2011 harvest began. Federal officials later blamed conditions at the shed for the outbreak.
“… it was foreseeable at the time of the July 25, 2011, audit that if the audit was negligently conducted, contaminated cantaloupe would leave the Jensen Farms packing facility and ultimately end up in the hands of consumers,” Judge Russell wrote.
“Additionally, there is clearly a need to prevent future harm in situations like this ... had the audit not reflected that the packing facility was in total compliance with food safety standards when it allegedly was not, Primus Group presumably would not have been named as a party in this case.”