Recent statements by several experts about the legitimacy of third party audits are missing the point. Third party audits are far from Ponzi schemes. They act to protect the buyer when they are realistically representative of the safety of foods and the buyer uses then as a basis for buying decisions. If there is a major shortcoming, it is that buyers do not always adhere to the audit findings, and choose their suppliers on some other basis. Buyers on the other hand are obligated to get the products needed to sell at the retail level. We all need food, and the retail industry cannot stop supplying consumers every time there is a potential problem revealed in an audit. Buyers of food are not police officers empowered to cut off suppliers with questionable sanitation. On the other hand, reputable firms are blind when they purchase unsafe products that would have been very apparent if tested or a visit to the facility made.
As I have argued, apparently in vain, the lack of a foundation of food safety throughout the food supply is the real culprit, not the weaknesses of the third party model. There should be no one, not one firm operating without the oversight of a government agency enforcing minimum standards. As some have written, minimum standards are all we can expect from government, but that is a lot. Without them, its naïve thinking that the industry will “police” itself. That is not what industries do; they expect government to do this. One of the paradigms that must be broken is that getting rid of government inspectors and turning all food safety totally over to industry is the wave of the future. Industry associations have argued this and to an extent have short-circuited the food safety system, but they have been pretty quiet of late and these same associations are now calling for intensive oversight.
I believe very strongly in industry self control, but we need to realize that the way business works, that self-control will be stronger or weaker depending on the entities involved. Therefore I argue that we need both; we need a validated industry self control model and an effective governmental oversight model working in tandem.
What happened at PCA was deplorable but it is not the standard for the third party audit industry. Most auditors understand and report risks, they do not allow relationships that develop on the job to sway them. Many just go about their business politely and professionally, but still record the errors they see, there is a knack to doing this that we learn. The best auditing firms are very aggressive about not allowing inappropriate relationships to happen, sure, it does, but the best of us discourage it. Auditors are not just vendors that show up at a plant; that is something that industry must also come to realize.
As I have also written, I have faith that this is all working for the best, because basically I have faith in this country and its ability to rise above the obstacles, especially now that we have reached a “Jungle” experience again after 100 years.
Now with consumers, legislatures, media and government appalled by what happened in Plainview and Blakely I predict we will see a real partnership between industry and government. I also believe third party auditing firms will play an important role in bringing order out of the chaos.
In conclusion, once our government enforces basic sanitation throughout the food chain, third parties will be able to do what they do best, and that is separate the Good, from the Excellent from the Superior. It is ridiculous that there is even one firm operating in “Poor” or less capacity such as I observed at PCA. Third parties in reality should never see this. This is lax government oversight. Do not expect third parties to fix the poorest operating facilities, it is not their role, that role belongs to the public health community and fixing that problem will fix most others.