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 Hatfield. So last spring 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 everything from granola bars to ice cream.
The peanut company, though, knew in advance that Hatfield was coming. He had less than a day to check the entire plant, which processed several million pounds of peanuts a month.
Hatfield, 66, an expert in fresh produce, was not aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella poisoning — which he was not required to test for anyway. And while Hatfield was inspecting the plant on behalf of Kellogg and other food companies, the Peanut Corporation was paying him for his efforts.
"The overall food safety level of this facility was considered to be: superior," he concluded in his March 27, 2008, report for his employer, the American Institute of Baking, which performs audits for major food companies. A copy of the audit was obtained by the New York Times.
Federal investigators later discovered that the dilapidated plant was ravaged by salmonella and had been shipping tainted peanuts and paste for at least nine months. But they were too late to prevent what has become one of the nation's worst known outbreaks of food-borne disease in recent years, in which nine are believed to have died and an estimated 22,500 were sickened.
With government inspectors overwhelmed by the task of guarding the nation's food supply, the job of monitoring food plants has in large part fallen to an army of private auditors like Hatfield. And the problems go well beyond peanuts.
An examination of the largest food poisoning outbreaks in recent years — in products as varied as spinach, pet food and a children's snack, Veggie Booty — shows that auditors failed to detect problems at plants whose contaminated products later sickened consumers.
In one case involving hamburgers fed to schoolchildren, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in California passed 17 separate audits in 2007, records show. Then an undercover video made that year showed the plant's workers using forklifts to force sickly cows into the slaughterhouse, which prompted a recall of 143 million pounds of beef in February 2008.
"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.
Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. The rigor of audits varies widely, and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the Food and Drug Administration spends to inspect a plant. Typically, the private auditors inspect only manufacturing plants, not the suppliers that feed ingredients to those facilities. Nor do they commonly test the actual food products for pathogens, even though gleaming production lines can turn out poisoned fare.
As in the Georgia peanut case, auditors are also usually paid by the food plants they inspect, which some experts said could deter them from cracking down. Yet food companies often point to an auditor's certificate as a seal of approval.
The baking institute, which is based in Manhattan, Kan., and is also known as AIB International, says it inspected more than 10,000 food production sites in 80 countries last year. James R. Munyon, its president and chief executive, said his group's inspections were reliable and tough, no matter who pays for them, but he declined to elaborate on specific audits.
Kellogg officials declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this article. The company has said it is reviewing its use of private audits, including those by the American Institute of Baking. Kellogg said it required the Peanut Corporation to provide it with annual audits of the Georgia facility. Kellogg has recalled more than a dozen products, including Keebler crackers and Famous Amos cookies.
The retail giant Costco, which had already limited the institute's audits to bakery vendors, has now told suppliers to stop using the group altogether.
Both the food industry and federal officials say they are aware of the problems with third-party audits. Nonetheless, the FDA has proposed expanding the role of private auditors to inspect the more than 200,000 foreign facilities that ship food to the United States.