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Use of Private Inspectors Tied to Peanut Corp. Illnesses, Other Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Mar 9, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Many food firms hire private companies to conduct safety inspections of their manufacturing plants.  But according to The New York Times, such private inspections may have contributed to the recent Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) salmonella outbreak.

Salmonella-tainted peanut products made by PCA have sickened 677 people and been implicated in 9 deaths across the U.S.  In January, the salmonella outbreak was traced to PCA’s plant in Blakely, Georgia, resulting in its closure. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) inspections there found that the company knowingly shipped products from that plant that had tested positive for salmonella. Emails revealed at a Congressional hearing showed that PCA owner Stewart Parnell had repeatedly urged his employees to do so.

In February, Texas health officials closed a PCA plant in Plainview after finding horrible conditions there, including dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers in a crawl space above a production area. Apparently, the plant’s air handling system was pulling debris from the infested crawl space into production areas.

Because PCA made peanut paste, peanut butter and other ingredients for 85 other firms - including The Kellogg Company and General Mills - hundreds of recalls have been issued. PCA was forced to declare bankruptcy, and federal officials are conducting a criminal probe of the company.

According to The New York Times, when a company like Kellogg outsources the manufacturing of ingredients, it will often hire a private inspection firm to check out the contractor's plant to make sure its employing proper food safety procedures.  In fact, an inspector from such a firm visited the PCA Georgia plant on behalf of Kellogg.   

But according to The New York Times, a couple factors hindered that inspector's job.  For one thing, PCA knew in advance when the inspector would be arriving.  So the company could prepare for the visit.  The inspector also had less than a day to look over the plant, the Times said.  

The Times also reports that the inspector was a specialist in fresh produce, and was not aware that the peanuts are especially vulnerable to salmonella contamination.  Not that it would have mattered - the inspector was not even required to test for the bacteria.

All of these factors played a role in the inspector giving the PCA Georgia plant a "superior" rating last March.  Less than a year later, the FDA would find a variety of safety violations at that facility, and would discover that it was infested with several types of salmonella bacteria.

Unfortunately, PCA is far from the only food firm subjected to inadequate inspections.  As the Times points out, the FDA simply does not have the manpower to oversee every food processor in the country.  So the agency actually relies on private firms to police the U.S. food supply.

But recent food poisoning out breaks prove this system is failing.  According to The New York Times, private auditors failed to turn up serious problems at food processing facilities linked to some of the biggest food poisoning outbreaks in recent years.

Yet rather trying to fix this system, the FDA is seeking to expand it.  According to The New York Times, the agency wants to allow private auditors to inspect the more than 200,000 foreign facilities that ship food to the U.S.

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