In the absence of food safety regulations in many commodities or the lack of oversight in general, companies have turned to the private regulation of the food supply. On an individual and voluntary basis, dozens of auditing firms and hundreds of private parties are looking closely at the safety of thousands of suppliers. The supplier-food safety scheme is pushing all the way back from the retailer to the primary producer or farmer. As each link in the supply chain tightens standards, there will be a corresponding improvement in the safety of final products.
The third party food safety business model is that buyers ”accredit” or approve the third party food-safety firms they will accept audits from, and suppliers are free to hire whatever firm they wish to satisfy the buyer. The supplier pays the auditing firm directly and the auditing firm sends the audit findings to the buyer. The buyer does not pay for the audit and the findings do not bind his purchasing decision.
Third party audits have the capacity to improve food safety and provide another means of protection in the wake of government inaction or even failure. Third parties use private food safety standards developed either in partnership with prospective buyers or in formal expert groups at the national and international levels. They provide the basis for determining “conformance” whereas regulations provide the basis or scope of the regulatory inspection, which is “compliance”. Third party audits cannot take the place of regulatory inspection in protecting the consumer for the simple fact that only government has the legal power to enforce compliance. Third party audits since they are voluntary often take on a collaborative air. A buyer maintaining good working relationships with his auditing companies makes good business sense and adversarial relationships are not productive. Bias can easily slip in when the audit customer and the auditing firm grow too close. Bias can enter from the supplier side as well. When choosing an auditing firm a supplier may decide to select a firm based on price, personal knowledge of the company and its personnel, as well as the strength of the auditing system and its recognition.
The premise for any company to hire an auditing firm is the needs of the buyer who is more than likely requesting the audit. The consumer benefits from the third party scheme in more consistently safe products but protection is weak when the most hazardous facilities continue to operate. Disqualification of a supplier is the responsibility of the buyer, but the audit findings in no way bind the buyer. Third parties can rate a firm but they cannot dictate to the buyer who to use. In such an unregulated system, unsafe operations continue to operate and distribute unsafe food to consumers who continue to become ill and die. Unsafe operations continue even when audits reveal clear significant problems and more troubling, sometimes auditors do not clearly report unsafe conditions.
Bias can work in another way. Since the auditing firm really wants the suppliers business, relationships between suppliers, auditors and firms may develop. If those personal relationships cloud the findings and discretion of the auditor, the system becomes very weak.
Shifting the weight for protecting the consumer to third parties alone is not a good system and is simply “passing the buck”. There must be at the basis for the model, a comprehensive and competent authority with enforcement powers and consistent presence. We cannot rely upon independent third parties for this. Government authority backing up the system greatly improves the third party model and gives it credibility especially when efforts are coordinated with industry. Government acting in tandem with industry third parties and thus the industry itself brings us full circle in the evolution of food protection efforts. Such an effort would pave the way for a significant improvement in the safety of foods and the protection of consumers.