Private Food Inspectors

This is a good (and awful) story. Here are some good bits. Commentary will follow.

From the NY Times: Food Problems Elude Private Inspectors.

When food industry giants like Kellogg want to ensure that American consumers are being protected from contaminated products, they rely on private inspectors like Eugene A. Hatfield. So last spring Mr. Hatfield headed to the Peanut Corporation of America plant in southwest Georgia to make sure its chopped nuts, paste and peanut butter were safe to use in things as diverse as granola bars and ice cream.

The peanut company, though, knew in advance that Mr. Hatfield was coming….

And while Mr. Hatfield was inspecting the plant to reassure Kellogg and other food companies of its suitability as a supplier, the Peanut Corporation was paying for his efforts….

Federal investigators later discovered that the dilapidated plant was ravaged by salmonella…nine are believed to have died and an estimated 22,500 were sickened.

Funniest quote from an un-funny story:

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.

See also:

Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, said, “The only thing that matters is productivity.” He added that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”

OK, here’s the problem. A big, big part of what allows the productivity levels enjoyed in modern societies is division of labour. That means, among other things, that most of us don’t product our own food. Plus, we demand an enormous variety of foods. Those two facts together imply an enormously complex food production and distribution system. A system that complex is going to have gaps, and opportunities for negligent, or lazy, or undertrained workers and managers to screw things up. Add to that the fact that we (naturally) want this bounty delivered to us as cheaply as possible (a desire satisfied by a vigorously competitive food retail market). That means an incentive for just about everyone to cut corners. Frankly, I’m surprised how few people die.

OK, three points to make.

1) Some heads need to roll. Don’t want to judge from one or two newspaper stories, but sounds like something pretty close to criminal negligence in some of these cases. I’d like to hear of more people going to jail for it. That might wake a few people up.

2) I need… you need, we consumers need … good stats about which foods are deadliest. Are there patterns? Are some foods just bad wagers? It’s a bad idea to judge based on one or two high-profile cases. Frankly, I’m tempted to avoid anything that a) comes from a factory, and that b) isn’t cooked. But I want more info.

3) As a society, maybe we need to think of food like we think of cars: something we love that just happens to kill some people. Now, our love of cheap, varied food and our acceptance of a certain degree of risk doesn’t mean food producers shouldn’t do better — much, much better even — at producing food safely, any more than our tolerance of thousands of highway deaths relieves auto manufacturers of the obligation to make cars safer.

4 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    All transatlantic studies show that, for long and still nowadays, food safety has been worse in the US than in Western Europe: number of deaths and illnesses due to food-borne contaminations, etc. But the interesting question is “Why?”: is it because US government technicians are unsufficiently trained or equipped? Or not as many as they should? Or even… would they be subject to bribery? Or what else? Best regards,François Guillon

  2. Sharon WIlson on

    Auto manufacturers are subject to very tight regulations regarding safety of the cars we drive. I think we should expect the same for the food we consume.

  3. Anonymous on

    I entirely agree with point number one. Just like SOX rules makes CEOs and CFOs criminally responsible for unethical accounting practices, food safety regulations were supposed to leave them accountable for dribbling the public opinion and putting lives at risk.Few manufacturers, once in a while, report major recalls with the help of the media. But the majority seems to cross their fingers hoping that nobody will link their negligent business practices to their organizations. Evidence is presented by the fact that major Canadian food retailers execute dozens of manufacturer recalls PER WEEK. The reasons vary from old code (expired) to unacceptable transportation or warehousing procedures that are identified by the 8-bucks-an-hour part-time associate at the moment of delivery or main floor replenishment. Quite prone to mistakes, as you might appreciate.Not making senior executives criminally responsible for putting public well-being at risk definitely delays the development of safer ways of producing and distributing food.However, I disagree with the assumption that the complexity of the food production/distribution chain is enhanced by the consumer’s desire to have inexpensive variety on the table which, therefore, would contribute to increased risk of contamination or poisoning. I would argue that such competitive markets would force producers, distributors and retailers to seek differentiation through quality and even safety by working closely with suppliers to offer greater value. Besides, there is plenty of business practices and enabling technologies that would keep the costs of producing and distributing goods at reasonable levels waiting for responsible leadership with long term view to implement them.– Rogerio MarquesToronto, ON

  4. […] food additives, genetically modified foods, health benefit claims, country-of-origin labeling, inspection, and international trade. [hyperlinks […]

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