Listeria and the Failure of Privatized Regulation

You might have heard of the recent Listeria outbreak that was traced back to contaminated melons. Well, it turns out that the healthy and safety inspections–outsourced to private organizations–utterly failed (boldface mine):

Government investigators said that workers had tramped through pools of water where listeria was likely to grow, tracking the deadly bacteria around the shed, which was operated by Jensen Farms, in Granada, Colo. The pathogen was found on a conveyor belt for carrying cantaloupes, a melon drying area and a floor drain, among other places.

“You’re rolling around cantaloupe on uncleanable equipment and you’re getting it wet and you’re not cooling it — it provides the perfect environment for listeria growth and spread,” said James Gorny, a senior food safety adviser at the Food and Drug Administration.

But the inspectors would have noticed that, right? Not so much:

The farm had passed a food safety audit by an outside contractor just days before the outbreak began. Eric Jensen, a member of the family that runs the farm, said in an e-mail that the auditor had given the packing plant a score of 96 points out of 100.

F.D.A. officials did not criticize the auditor directly. But Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency intended to establish standards for how auditors should be trained and how audits should be conducted…

Dr. Gorny said that some of the conditions he described, including pools of water on the floor, had been noted during a visit in mid-September after the plant ceased operation and the equipment was dismantled. It was not clear if investigators who had visited the plant while it was still in operation saw the same unsanitary conditions.

Of course, when the inspector draws his paycheck from the farmer being inspected, well, wacky things just happen:

The outbreak is likely to focus new attention on the use of auditors in the food industry. Typically farms or processors are required by their customers, like supermarket or restaurant chains, to have an auditor evaluate their food safety procedures.

Jensen Farms hired an auditor called PrimusLabs, based in California, to inspect its facility. Primus gave the job to a subcontractor, Bio Food Safety, which is based in Texas. Jensen and Primus declined to provide a copy of the audit report.

Robert Stovicek, the president of PrimusLabs, said his company had reviewed the audit and found no problems in how it was conducted or in the auditor’s conclusions.

“We thought he did a pretty good job,” Mr. Stovicek said. He said the auditor, James M. DiIorio, has been doing audits for the company since March.

He said that Mr. DiIorio had received two one-week training courses as part of his preparation and had also gone on audits with other auditors.

Asked how Mr. DiIorio could have given high marks to a facility that the F.D.A. described as a breeding ground for listeria, Mr. Stovicek said, “There’s lots of variations as to how people interpret unsanitary conditions.”

You know, the only thing wackier than this would be if rating agencies had conflicts of interest when they had to rate various financial products from banks with which they have a financial relationship.

Huh? meanoh dear.

Seriously, we need more government inspections. And with 9.1% U3 unemployment, I’m sure you could find people willing to do this….

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