Food Safety’s Dirty Little Secret

October 6th, 2008

After the first reports of a salmonella outbreak this spring, it took a full 89 days before jalapeño and serrano peppers came under suspicion as the culprit. During that period, more than 1,440 victims were hospitalized.

Even as bacterial outbreaks have become more high-profile, and the financial fallout from recalls more severe, the government has been handing off many food-safety responsibilities to private industry. Food safety today is a business.

For most Americans, the FDA is still the public face of food safety. But in reality, oversight of farms and food plants has gradually changed hands. There is now a cottage industry of third-party companies calling themselves “food-safety consultants.”

This has created some alarming potential gaps. There’s no certification system for these third-party inspectors. Critics worry that retailers hire these companies not just to ensure food quality — but also as a defense mechanism to help protect their public image in case something goes wrong.

And while tomato and spinach growers are audited heavily because they’ve had so many problems in the past, other crops, such as broccoli and cauliflower, are scrutinized less. Many growers are living in a continuing state of denial about whether they should be doing anything.

There’s also the concern that these efforts could actually be making food less safe. In some cases, a grower needs to pay for audits from six or seven companies just to satisfy the demands of all of its different buyers. The overlapping attention might help eliminate problems, but it’s also costly. For slaughter facilities squeezed by rising costs, surreptitiously cutting out E. coli tests has been one of their money-saving tactics.

To get a further sense of the problem, consider that today about 80 percent of the United State’s seafood and slightly less than half of its fresh fruits are imported from overseas. But the FDA inspects only about 1 percent. Meanwhile, it would cost the FDA more than $3.5 billion to inspect every one of the roughly 250,000 domestic and foreign food facilities just once.

In reality, industry insiders say the FDA is lucky if it gets to the same facility once every three years.