With both the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal Constitution reporting on inspections and audits, audit company auditors and the third party food safety scheme are coming under fire. There is ample evidence that both the third party audit model and regulatory inspection model have deficiencies, as brought out by the most recent PCA incident and other food safety crises. There appears to be some confusion however about the root causes of these deficiencies, and we should differentiate third party audits from regulatory inspection. The scopes and purposes of these audits are different in important ways while sharing many similarities.
Third party audits seek to evaluate and examine conformance with a private food safety standard, while of course regulatory audits seek compliance with public health rules and laws. Private companies own and develop the third party audit standards, and although FDA has begun looking at a certification process for such firms, they act independently from regulatory agencies and are not bound to evaluate all laws and rules relative to a firm.
The scope of the audit limits the third party auditor in determining conformance while the government inspector is bound to determine compliance with the code and seek enforcement. An auditor may find himself narrowly looking at criteria as specified by the standard, and the policies of the auditing company. For example, in a manufacturing environment, the auditor may be interested in one or two lines or one or two processes for a particular labeled good, and find that the scope of the audit does not cover some otherwise important areas of the whole operation and its products.
The strength of the audit from a public health perspective is basically that the audit goes deeper into management systems that support the compliance with laws than most regulatory inspections. The strengthens of the regulatory inspection is that violations of a food safety nature trigger enforcement at some level, re inspection, condemnation and embargo of product and other interventions not available to the third party auditor. Regulatory agencies also have (or should have) the power to compel compliance and the release of vital food safety information such as microbiological tests data, and demand a recall.
The two systems are therefore complimentary and both together have the capacity to bring about public health protection. We can improve the two systems and bring them closer together in a number of ways. The third party auditing company should have the ability to withhold certification based on its own criteria. This means that even a firm who might achieve a Superior Rating could have their certifications withdrawn if they fail to stay in substantial compliance with laws and rules, withhold information about the safety of the product or process, or engage in fraudulent activities. This is currently not the case in many audit schemes, the decision to do business with a supplier is left totally to the buyer who can opt to make a buying decision, based solely on the audit criteria.
We can strengthen the regulatory model in a number of ways. Currently, many food safety agencies are under staffed, poorly funded, and ineffective at regulation. The fragmentation of public health is something the food industry has brought upon itself. Industry must seek to obtain proper funding for food safety agencies or must agree to fee increases to keep these very necessary functions going . Industry must support agencies to expand their jurisdiction.
Third party audits alone will not protect public health, and public health is greatly improved by the independent review of food safety management systems by an outside expert. However, the owners of private standards do not intended to be public health protection agencies and their standards should not take the place of a farm to fork regulatory framework for food safety. The shakiness in this framework is the underlying cause of our food safety dilemma and industry is finding that its third party, buyer driven standards alone will not properly protect their own interests or public health.