Third-party audits come under fire after outbreaks - The Packer

Third-party audits come under fire after outbreaks

10/27/2011 06:43:00 PM
Tom Karst

Given the failure of third-party audits to pinpoint potential food safety problems in recent cases involving German sprouts, Georgia peanuts and Colorado cantaloupe, some primary handlers of produce might be considering sending in their own teams to inspect suppliers.

“I am hearing from a few of the larger produce organizations (first handlers) is that is what they are going back to,” said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

GombasHe said he was unaware of foodservice and retail buyers who are thinking of doing the same. “(Retailers) would need an army,” he said.

However, Gombas said some primary handlers of produce are considering it.

“They are not trusting the third-party audits and they are going out and doing their own inspections as well to verify if the third-party (inspectors) are doing a good job,” Gombas said.

In light of recent outbreaks, some growers question the value of audits, said Chris Schlect, president of the of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. Gombas said the services auditors offer vary greatly — one of the biggest issues to resolve in the industry.

With 140,000 farms in the country, finding the right number of people knowledgeable about food safety is a tall task, Gombas said.

While the FDA is charged with developing a process to accredit third-party auditors in foreign countries under the new Food Safety Modernizaton Act, Gombas predicts FDA will find it hard to rely on third-party audits.

“Everyone is looking for FDA to come up with a solution, but I don’t know if they have any better answers than we do,” he said.

He noted the United Fresh effort to harmonize Good Agricultural Practices did not address third-party auditor certification.

“We knew that the harmonzied standard was a tough enough goal to achieve.”

The Global Food Safety Initiative which begin in 2000 and was designed to harmonize audit standards in Europe — still hasn’t solved that issue.

Roy Costa, president of third-party auditing company Environ Health Associates Inc., Deland, Fla., said some auditors aren’t prepared for the range of food facilities they inspect, whether it is a bakery, seafood facilities, a meat processing plant or packinghouse for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The auditors are required to wear all these different hats,” he said.

Unfortunately, because of the demand (for services), the auditor may not have the exact industry knowledge they need to look at the commodity they are looking at.

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Washington, DC  |  October, 28, 2011 at 06:30 AM

Be careful when touting the credentials of government inspectors. The USDA has no minimum education requirements (some only have high school degrees), and only requires an auditor pass a one week training class, put on by the USDA. Since the cost of the audit, the bill, is being paid by the grower, the audit is swung in their favor. The audits should be paid by the retailer on their behalf, for a more independent audit.

Yuma AZ  |  October, 28, 2011 at 08:22 AM

I have to agree with David, the industry needs to come up with a standard that all food retailers and food service vendors must agree on. Not one retailer or food service vendor claiming to have higher standard than the other for marketing purposes. Also each retailer and food service vendor sould accept a universal standard thus lowering the cost of multiple boutique standards. This way we could ensure food safty for our consumers and lower the cost for the public. Aftre all this is what we are trying to achieve.

McAllen,TX  |  October, 28, 2011 at 09:13 AM

The third party can only certify that the facility is up to standard on that given day. Once the auditor leaves there is no guarantee that the food safety procedures are followed. It is up to the facility owner to conduct self audits to insure that the procedures are followed. Perhapse third party auditors should conduct periodic inspections without prior notification. Auditing once a year is not enough regardless as to whom the auditor is and what his credentials are.

Chip Seck    
Gonzales, Ca.  |  October, 28, 2011 at 09:35 AM

These 3rd party auditors are falling all over themselves trying to market their wares to the retailers. Many times us growers have to go through multiple duplicate audits every year for the shippers that we work with as their customers are insisting on a certain auditing company that they choose. All it has done is added a bunch of cost to the system. The leafy greens comes through quite frequently with random audits that are very thorough. It makes me sick when you have Primus, Davis Fresh, Global Gap, SCS, and any others coming through lined up outside the door and having dollar signs in their eyes.

Saliaas  |  October, 30, 2011 at 08:15 PM

I agree most of the auditors in this third party audits are not even qualified specially the subcontracted ones that are just there to make a quick buck, some of them perform 2 audits in a day. Specially Primus and their new PRIMUSGFS, with the amount of money theu charge they should hire more qualified personnel that has worked in the industry and not just people with 5 to 10 audits under their belt, experience is what counts in this Industry. Mr. Brian quit trying just to make a quick BUCK

Facility Owner    
Escondido  |  October, 28, 2011 at 09:48 AM

The auditing process is a joke. Auditors are lazy and retailers only care about the certificate for liability reasons. If the public's health is really everyone's goal then the effort must start with the public willing to pay a little more for their produce. I would love to be 100% compliant 100% of the time, but I cut corners when I can. Why... because it costs to much to be 100%. Margins are small and I am running a business that is only slightly profitable to begin with. If I were to get more return for my product I would invest that back into my business. I do not do anything harmful because I care about the consumer but I do not always stay on the path of compliance. I am sure other owners feel the same but the answer is not an easy one. It is certainly not going to be solved by the FDA or USDA. It is a matter of education. Educating the public, educating farmers and educating the packers of all that can and should be done and understanding that it comes at a cost. If you want quality, you have to be willing to pay for it.

Rich Gauss    
Ft. Pierce Florida  |  October, 28, 2011 at 10:19 AM

As a grower and shipper of fresh Florida Citrus we under go many audits. We have audit fatigue. I believe that third party audits are helpful in keeping with the standards for safe food. However I do not think that one standard fits all. Fresh whole citrus is a low risk commodity and in my 30 yrs in the industry I have never heard of anyone becoming sick or dying from eating citrus. We are governed by laws and rules that affect the way we grow and process and sell fresh citrus. I think the problem is that you can be audited by an auditor that has no experiance or knowledge of the specific commodity that you are producing. If the audit schemes were for a specific product and or process and the auditors were knowledgable in that soecific product you wold have a much better chance of preventing a foodbourne illness from reaching the market and consumer. It is ridiculous to send a bakery inspector to a citrus packinghouse or to send a citrus inspector to a meat packing plant. The auditors today are too spread out and cant possibly know everthing about what commodities that they may be required to inspect.

Jay Louie    
Fresno, CA  |  October, 31, 2011 at 06:06 PM

Food auditing is such a broad catagory, one cannot expect a auditor to understand all the various processes that are specific for each food product yet alone a specific produce item. I've been a Board member of the International Sprout Growers Association for over 10 years. In 1996 the sprout industry experienced its first Salmonella outbreak. After years of research and studies by the FDA, Guidelines were published 10/99. For several years, the problem seemed to have been minimized. The problem reappeared in 2007. By this time, many audits have been performed under the FDA Guidance documents. Nevertheless, varous auditors interpreted the guidance documents differently. In fact, individual FDA inspectors interpreted the guidance documents differently. In 2009, a task force was formed to prepare an auditing checklist at the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH). After more study and discussions a draft audit checllist was prepare. After several more meetings, drafts and reviews, a final draft was just released this pass Oct. 2011. The audit checklist is over 20 pages long, and covers very specific atributes of the sprout production process. This final draft is currently undergoing further peer rivew. It would appear that if a produce commodity is serious about food safety, the entire production process must be examined and re-examined thoroughly. The responsibility for developing avalid auditing program require a mutual colaboration of industry, academia and regulators. One cannot expect an auditing firm to just drop in and perform an audit.

visalia  |  October, 28, 2011 at 10:31 AM

until retailers pay for the audits themselves nothing will change. the present system the audit companies sell the "services" to the retailer, who then demands their suppliers pay the bill. The biggest new scam is the social responsibility audits. One major club store chain insists on them - but other than the audit company badgering the grower till the $1200-$4800 is wired to them nothing more happens. As a grower once you wire the funds, you have to badger the auditor to do the audit. But no one cares that you do the audit - they just care that the funds are sent.

PHARR  |  October, 28, 2011 at 02:55 PM


Former Grower    
Atlanta  |  October, 28, 2011 at 05:29 PM

The third party auditors started years back so they could give retailers a sense of security that they were getting safe product, however it has been a joke from the beginning. The only companies with good programs have internal food safety people. Remember food safety is a culture for a company, not a snapshot in time.

Nick Naranja    
Florida  |  October, 28, 2011 at 08:41 PM

I could see a situation where consumers themselves pay for a government organized auditing scheme. Of course, nobody wants a new tax, but I think you could fund just about every audit ever needed by a small retailer collected tax. I think a penny/ear tax on sweet corn collected from consumers would more than pay for randomly auditing every commercial sweet corn grower in the country. Nobody would even notice the price difference. Consumers are not as sensitive to 1 cent changes in prices as marketers would lead you to believe.

New York  |  October, 31, 2011 at 04:47 PM

After reading the story of the farm and where the possible contamination could have come in from, the first level of fault lies with the producer and the person that is emplyed there in charge of their food safety plan. An assessment of the packing facility conducted on a timely basis should have shown where problems could occur. Yes, the auditor should have picked up something too if the producer/manager had a clear understanding of food safety and the need for minimizing risk, they should have had a better grasp of the situation from the start

A Private Certification Standard Owner    
Maryland  |  November, 01, 2011 at 09:06 PM

In the end it comes down to transparency and governance. When growers and buyers are choosing an audit firm and a standard, they may want to ask the following questions: Who owns the standard? Who else recognizes the standard? Who manages the auditing rules? Who was consulted when the audit rules and standard were developed? How is the standard maintained and how are changes communicated to the audit firm? How is the performance of the auditing body and its auditors assessed? Is there a corrective action plan in place for auditors exhibiting inadequate performance? How rigorous is it? Is there an effective complaint system where stakeholders can voice their suggestions? How responsive is the organization to changes in the market and environment? We live in a global market with ever-changing consumer, producer, and retailer concerns. However, I believe many good examples of third-party audits exist and you must ask these questions to find the maybe not perfect but best fit for your company. And then it is up to you, the user of that standard, to get involved and have your say and input!

Thomas Neal    
Chicago  |  November, 07, 2011 at 02:02 PM

Third party audit are a must have from governmental expectations, customer expectations, as well as the well being of the company being audited. However, they are dependent on two key points. (1) How open and honest the company is with the auditor (2) How good and knowledgeable the auditor is in the specific field they are auditing. My experience is that it is not only how well they audit against the specific expectations, but also how capable the audited company's quality/food safety systems are at supporting this critical part of the business.

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