WASHINGTON -- A Colorado cantaloupe farm linked by federal regulators to one of the deadliest food outbreaks since the 1920s was graded as having "superior" safety practices just one month before consumers became ill from eating the fruit.
A private company handled the inspection, typical of most audits required by retailers to ensure suppliers prevent food contamination. The Food and Drug Administration later found unsanitary conditions at Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., that likely led to the listeria-tainted outbreak that sickened 139 people and killed 29 starting in August.
On average, the FDA inspects less than a quarter of food facilities each year, a 2010 report found. Safety advocates such as Chicago-based STOP Foodborne Illness say the federal government should accredit private auditors who inspect domestic farms and facilities, standardize training and force retailers to pay for the inspections -- often funded by the food producers themselves -- to eliminate potential conflicts of interest.
"You can make these audits useful by writing them on toilet paper. Then someone would at least use them," said Mansour Samadpour, president of Lake Forest Park, Wash.-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, a food-safety consulting firm, in an interview. "They're worthless. They give a false sense of security."
The FDA has 1,100 inspectors to monitor 421,121 domestic and foreign farms and food processors, with the workers also having other duties, Douglas Karas, an agency spokesman, said. Some inspect drug facilities as well, he said.
The third-party auditors get about $300 each for an agricultural inspection, while food processing audits may run as much as $3,000 or more, Samadpour said.
The audit companies are the ones that make the money, Samadpour said. "If they do 20,000 to 100,000 audits a year, it adds up."
There are no generally accepted standards for the private audits and criteria may vary from inspector to inspector, said David Theno, chief executive officer of Del Mar, Calif.-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., which provides senior-level food safety and quality consultants. The 22-page Jensen Farms report contained numbered scores and auditor comments in response to questions about manufacturing practices.
Jensen Farms' packing house achieved a score of 96 percent, high enough to be ranked "superior," according to a copy of the July 25 audit by Primus Group Inc., which does business as PrimusLabs in Santa Maria, Calif., and subcontracted the review to another party.
The facility achieved total compliance for having "floor surfaces in good condition with no standing water," according to the audit. Deficiencies found included no hot water at hand- washing stations and no documented record of training on food- security issues.
An FDA review after the outbreak concluded the building "allowed for water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways" creating conditions that might spread listeria, according to an Oct. 19 report. The agency also found widespread contamination and unsanitary practices.
Efforts have been made by the food industry to create stringent guidelines. International safety officials from the retail, manufacturing and food service industries started the Global Food Safety Initiative in 2000, which led to standards used in audits. Those guidelines haven't been adopted by all inspectors.
"The auditing system has helped improved food safety a great deal," said Jim Prevor, a food industry analyst in Boca Raton, Fla. "Critics are too ready to dismiss the whole system."
Third-party inspectors generally review operations and examine paperwork to see if certain procedures are followed, Prevor said. They may check if water used on produce is regularly tested, for example, or that rodent traps are kept away from food.
Private inspections have prompted Costco Wholesale Corp. to pull products from shelves and led Whole Foods Market Inc. to require suppliers fix deficiencies.
Costco, based in Issaquah, Wash., sends its own auditors as well as third-party inspectors to suppliers and has in cases refused food products because problems were uncovered, said Craig Wilson, head of food safety at the warehouse club chain, in an interview. The rejected food included a seven-layer dip, eggs, dog biscuits and a hummus product, he said.
Whole Foods, the largest U.S. natural-foods grocer based in Austin, Texas, is expanding audits of growers after company-hired inspectors identified issues with suppliers, said Libba Letton, a spokeswoman, in an email. She said the retailer has put into place corrective actions, without providing details.
The hired auditors often are paid by those they are inspecting, creating potential conflicts, Samadpour said. Some companies got high marks even though their products were linked to consumer deaths.
Peanut Corp. of America, a closely held company that was based in Lynchburg, Va., filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after more than 700 people became ill and nine died in a salmonella outbreak traced to its processing plants in Georgia and Texas. Dead rodents and droppings were found near a production area, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
One of the plants had achieved a superior rating and the other met or exceeded expectations in independent audits, according to a 2009 statement from Peanut Corp.
The audit of Jensen Farms showed how inspections may not be adequate for listeria, a bacteria that may be found in soil, water and some animals. Symptoms may take as many as 70 days to surface and the disease can cause death or serious illness in the elderly, newborns, and people with weakened immune systems, according to the FDA.
Listeria may have been introduced into the packing area of the Colorado facility because a truck parked adjacent to the building traveled to a cattle operation, according to the FDA report.
The private auditor made no mention of the truck, according to the report.
In the wake of the outbreak, PrimusLabs was asked to brief staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to an Oct. 24 letter to the company. Lawmakers asked Primus to preserve documents related to audits of Jensen Farms and any information "relating to the effectiveness of Primus Lab's auditing process," according to the letter.
The audit at Jensen Farms was required by Edinburgh, Texas- based Frontera Produce, which arranged buyers for the cantaloupe, Jim Mulhern, a spokesman for Frontera, said in an interview. Jensen Farms selected the auditor and paid for the review, he said.
"In the wake of this experience, we are examining the role of audits and looking at possible changes," Mulhern said in an email. Frontera is looking into whether more steps are needed to validate findings, such as follow-up audits, he said.
Carrie Jensen of Jensen Farms declined to comment in an email. "Once investigations have been completed, we would love the opportunity," she said.
Robert Stovicek, president of Primus Labs, also declined to comment on the Jensen audit, saying only that independent reviews by companies like his prevent food-related illnesses. Such illnesses strike an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The system is imperfect, he said. Suppliers being inspected may try to get higher scores by doing a quick clean up before the inspectors arrive, Stovicek said.
"They don't invite us into their homes when it's dirty," Stovicek said.
Victims of the listeria outbreak may help focus attention on the audit process.
Jennifer Exley criticized the Jensen Farms results after tainted cantaloupe left her 84-year-old father, Herbert Stevens Jr. of Littleton, Colorado, with listeria poisoning. He filed a lawsuit on Sept. 21 in Arapahoe County District Court in Colorado against Jensen Farms.
"They got a superior rating on an audit. There's no way," said Exley, 55, of Centennial, Colo. "You live in the U.S. and think food sources should be safe, but they're not."