The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst on Nov. 1 chatted with Bill Marler, Seattle, Wash.-based lawyer with the food safety law firm Marler Clark. Read the entire chat on the Fresh Talk blog.
2:02 p.m. Tom Karst: You are involved with the (Jensen Farms) cantaloupe case. What makes that case notable in your perspective? I know every outbreak is different in ways, but what are the unique things about this one that you see?
2:04 p.m. Bill Marler: From a personal perspective — more so than from a legal perspective — it is just sort of stunning of the number of people who have died and the number who are still hospitalized. I’m sort of stunned by the severity of the outbreak and that’s a hard thing to quantify.
From a food safety perspective, I can’t say I was shocked by the outcome of the FDA inspection. Listeria likes a cooler, wetter environment. When you are looking at eastern Colorado and cantaloupe growing ... cooler, wetter environments only make sense inside a packinghouse. So I guess I wasn’t shocked by the FDA’s findings of positive samples and bad practices.
Most outbreaks I have seen in 18 years of doing this are caused by people doing bad practices, doing things that, frankly, they all know they shouldn’t do but they do them anyway or they are not paying attention to details. I think that is what you got here.
2:07 p.m. Karst: In many of these cases, it seems as if there are third-party audits in place. From that perspective, you could say they were taking care of the food safety issue. Why do things go wrong?
2:08 p.m. Marler: There are two questions there. One is that things go wrong like this because of multiple examples, some more or less egregious. You look at the Peanut Corp. of America, having a badly managed plant and shipping product that you know is contaminated with salmonella, I don’t think you can disagree that that is a bad practice. I haven’t been into the Jensen Farms packing plant, but you look at the FDA report and I think even the California cantaloupe growers have been pretty vocal in their condemnation of Jensen Farms’ practices.
You ask yourself, gee, were these auditors and FDA people in the same facility? And so I have a great deal of concern about third-party audits, primarily based on the facts of what I have seen the last decade, of third-party audits not catching things that were being done at or during an outbreak and coming to completely different conclusions to eventually what you see on the ground.
I just think the third-party auditing system has got some real flaws, and I think in order to get the incentives correct, I think these audits need to be owned and required by an entity closest to the consumer. Because right now, what you see are audits being performed and paid for by the entity that has the most interest in having a clean bill of health.