After almost every one of these food safety train wrecks, we learn that there was a “third-party” audit of the offending facility just before a bunch of people were poisoned and killed.

For the current Listeria outbreak,  it was the well known Primus Labs that dispatched one of its subcontractors, Bio Food Safety in Rio Hondo, TX, to Jensen Farms in Colorado.  Bio Safety spent about four hours and gave Jensen Farms a near perfect score of 96 (out of 100) in July 2011.

The third-party auditor hardly had time to drive back to Rio Hondo before the first deaths were occurring in Colorado and New Mexico from eating “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes grown and packed at Jensen Farms. Now it’s the most deadly outbreak in 25 years.

Newspapers this weekend are covering the stark differences between the Primus/Bio audit report and the “root cause” investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The original report came from Elizabeth Weise at USA Today and can be found here.

These stories always raise the issue of whether or not third-party audits are “credible.”   I think it’s a question of you get what you pay for. In this instance, it was Edinburg, TX-based Frontera, the company that distributed Jensen Farm cantaloupes to 24 states, that demanded the third-party audit.

With a who’s who list of retailers lining up to buy “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, it was only a matter of time before one of them asked Frontera for the bonafides of the grower who was producing 40 percent of Colorado’s cantaloupes.

So Frontera went to Jensen Farms who went to Primus who sub-contracted the work out to Bio Food Safety, which on its website promises “quality service at an unbelievable price.”  

Since it is reasonable to assume none of these companies expected the tragedy that was just around the corner, the question is whether at the time did they get what they paid for?  My guess is they did, as a near perfect score on a third-party audit helped fuel sales.

In the past, these “clean” third-party audits have added some gallows humor to some of the nation’s most severe food poisonings, but that’s been about it. This time may be different for a couple of reasons.

First, Santa Maria, CA-based Primus Labs is being tagged for doing “damage to the industry” by California cantaloupe growers who’ve taken a huge financial hit because the outbreak has crashed consumer demand for cantaloupes.

Second, third-party auditors have escaped litigation brought on behalf of victims of foodborne illness in the past. Bill Marler, the best known food safety attorney in the country and the publisher of Food Safety News, is talking about inviting the likes of Primus to the party.  

One of the other little factoids about Jensen Farms that should concern us is the fact that while its open air packing house was registered with FDA in 2010, under the 2002 Bioterrorism  Act, it never saw a state or federal inspection.

FDA officials said it would get inspected on a 5- to 7-year cycle.

If we had a system of third-party auditing that actually worked, FDA might use the auditors to help fill that gap. Its too bad these “audits for sales purposes” have damaged the image of all third-party auditing.

There are some out there, I think, that want the truth.

The reason third-party auditing should concern us, however, is not because of what happened at Jensen Farms, Peanut Corporation of America or after the long line of blundering reviews we seen.   

No, the reason we should be concerned is because eventually, under the Food Safety Modernization Act,  third-party auditors are going to be working for the public sector.

Section 308 of the Food Safety Modernization Act calls for FDA accreditation of third-party auditors and audit agents for imported foods. How all this third-party certification is going to work is critical.

There’s a long way to go before this happens, but eventually it is going to come down to the standards and certification requirements that FDA will set for this new help.

The key question, I think, will come down to whether FDA is going to set those standards and certifications for businesses or individuals. My preference would be to certify the individual, not the company.

I’d sooner have auditors know they can take their credentials and go elsewhere if they are being pressured to whitewash an inspection than have companies holding all those cards.