Are Food Processors in Audit Overload?

Tougher and more stringent independent audits are an important tool in upgrading food-safety systems worldwide, but they are no panacea for the issues industry faces.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Orkin Auditors

Trained and knowledgeable auditors are the foundation of effective food-safety systems, and demand exceeds supply as food companies and government authorities try to create proactive systems for both domestic and imported foods. Photo: Orkin Commercial Services

Third-party audits of food plants were a rarity before 1993’s outbreak of pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 was traced to Jack in the Box hamburgers. Four children died and 178 people, most under the age of 10, suffered permanent brain and kidney injuries.

Before that, two-party inspections of key suppliers by retailers and restaurant chains sometimes occurred, but blind trust was the default setting, recalls David Theno, who was hired by Jack in the Box as the chain’s first food-safety director in the wake of the E. coli tragedy.

“The 1993 event opened people’s eyes and made restaurants and retailers realize that they were responsible for the safety of the food their suppliers gave them,” says Theno, now retired from Jack in the Box and a principal of Gray Dog Partners Inc., a food-safety consultancy based in the San Diego area. With thousands of food processors and other suppliers stocking the JIB units, he turned to third-party auditors, triggering a growth curve in those services that continues today.

While at Jack in the Box, Theno directed an in-house team of 30-40 auditors who visited the chain’s 2,400 restaurants monthly. “It was really hard to keep them aligned and calling out the defects the same way,” he ruefully notes. Twenty years later, the challenge has grown exponentially and industry wide.

Given the size and complexity of America’s food industry, it’s a wonder it took so long to adopt the guiding principle of Chicago’s long-gone City News Bureau: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” The food industry has embraced that philosophy in the 21st Century, making independent audit services one of the industry’s fastest-growing areas, both in terms of the number of audits performed and the hiring and training of qualified auditors.

Audit fatigue is an issue, aggravated by a host of new verifications. Some, such as livestock handling audits, are executed for customers on behalf of their constituents. Others are assurances for those consumers, such as certified organic and the fast-growing gluten-free seal of approval. Still others are undertaken as a general assurance to industry, such as pest management reviews, food-defense audits and HACCP evaluations. The result is a seemingly endless stream of clipboard-armed auditors and inspectors moving through the plant.

Stress is compounded when multiple customers insist on conducting their own second-party audits. The duplication of time and effort caused UK retailers to create the British Retail Consortium Food Technical Standard in 1998, the first formalized third-party food safety audit. That led to formation of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which sanctions standards like BRC as a framework for continuous improvement in food safety.

For food processors, GFSI holds the promise of fewer audits. According to Robert Prevendar, global managing director of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International’s Supply Chain Food Safety division, some food companies have seen a significant reduction in the frequency of audits thanks to GFSI.

“Unfortunately, we have not reached a point where (GFSI audits) are universally accepted,” he allows. Certification bodies like NSF are trying to address the fatigue issue with bundled services and cross-border acceptance, but the effort is in its infancy.

The elephant in today’s audit room, however, is the Jensen Farms case. Cantaloupes processed at the Holly, Colo., packinghouse in 2011 were tied to the U.S.’s deadliest outbreak of pathogenic food contamination in the 21st Century. William Marler, the Seattle attorney who has built a career on suing food companies on behalf of victims of foodborne illnesses (beginning with the Jack in the Box case) represents most of victims and their survivors in the Jensen incident, just as he had in the Peanut Corp. of America case in 2008 and the Wright Egg salmonella outbreak in 2010.

The lack of statutory law extending liability to audit companies in the event of food poisonings deterred him from pursuing auditors in earlier outbreaks, but in the case of Jensen, Marler smells blood.

Frontera Produce Ltd. distributed Jensen’s melons to Walmart and other retailers. As a condition of distribution, Jensen was required to pass a food-safety audit conducted by Primus Group Inc., a Santa Maria, Calif.-based audit service specializing in agricultural operations in the U.S. and Mexico. Weeks before the first Listeriosis cases tied to its melons were reported, Jensen received a 96 percent score and a superior rating in a Primus audit.

Pretrial wrangling in a dozen cases in nine states concluded in recent months, and in nine of them, the courts have denied Primus’ motions to dismiss. Marler calls a $50 million estimate of actual and punitive judgments against Primus in those civil suits conservative.

“We’ve now established a body of case law that is basically a roadmap for suing an auditor” in future incidents of foodborne illnesses, he says. “For auditors and audit services, it’s a new day. I know they’re freaking out.”

Recruitment challenge

The case law established in the Jensen Farms litigation will make successful suits against audit companies more likely in the future, Marler believes. More critical and detailed audits seem likely, but audit services first must come to grips with the daunting challenge of recruiting and training qualified professionals to execute procedural reviews.

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