"Melon Farmers Sue Private Inspector For Giving Them ‘Superior’ Rating Months Before Deadly Outbreak"
Months before spawning a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people, Jensen Farms passed an audit with flying colors. Now, the Jensen brothers are suing the private auditors, Primus Group, as the farmers face criminal charges in federal court next week. The Jensens plan to turn over any money received in the lawsuit to victims.
Last year, a Congressional probe blamed the deadly outbreak both on Jensen Farms’ melons and on Primus Group’s auditors, who inspected the farm in July 2011, two months before the outbreak and gave it a 96 percent rating. The auditors had initially visited the farm in 2010 and told the Jensens to replace their cooling system. The brothers installed a new system that ended up violating U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, but auditors never raised any concerns.
Private audit firms are hired by food companies to supplement government inspections and ensure suppliers’ facilities are clean and safe. But as the Congressional report found, these audit firms are often riddled with conflicts of interest and “represent a significant gap in the food safety system.”
Because private auditors are paid by the very companies they are supposed to scrutinize, cases like Jensen Farms are far from unusual. A Texas peanut plant received a “superior” rating shortly before its salmonella-tainted peanut paste sickened 600 people in 2009. An egg-packing plant got the same “superior” rating in 2010, two months before the company was included in the largest known egg recall in the U.S. FDA inspectors who later visited the egg plant found rampant vermin, dead chickens scattered all over the floor, and 8-foot high manure piles seeping through the floor.
Despite this abysmal track record, private auditors are still not required to follow any federal standards and are given virtually any government supervision. The push to further privatize food inspections, meanwhile, is only growing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing through a new rule to replace federal poultry inspectors with internal inspectors hired by the food company, who reportedly miss major defects and are reprimanded when they do try to remove diseased birds.
Yet as their budgets shrink, agencies have little choice but to rely on unregulated private inspectors. After House Republicans slashed food inspection budgets by millions of dollars in 2011, government inspectors have only enough resources to visit farms and processing plants once every three to five years. Sequestration dug even deeper into inspection funding, removing up to 600 inspectors from meat processing plants. This funding shortage is one reason FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg called private audit firms “very, very important to our program.” Not surprisingly, instances of foodborne illness are rising steadily.