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Pundit’s Mailbag — Do Inspectors Help ‘Prevent’ Foodborne Illness?

Our piece, Tracing Of Foodborne Illnesses Falls Under A Patchwork of Poorly-run, Under-resourced State Labs, brought an objection from a food safety consultant:

An interesting and informative article in most respects, but your final paragraph containing the opinion, “ — hiring inspectors to stand around plants in the hope they will see invisible pathogens is an enormous waste of money” really did not make much sense.

Anyone involved in food safety in the US in recent years knows that the purpose of inspectors is to ensure that PREVENTIVE programs (primarily HACCP, but also regulations such as low-acid and acidified canning regs) are in place and are followed. We also need more and better preventive programs.

Diverting funds from this to labs that are involved in determining causes of consumer illness is diverting funds from prevention to response. Clearly both are important, but the tone of your remark indicating that you think inspectors will be standing around trying to “see” pathogens is far off the mark.

John Manoush
Manoush Associates, LLC
Portland, Maine

We confess to have spoken a bit tongue-in-cheek. Everyone is, of course, aware that E. coli 0157:H7 and similar pathogens are invisible to the naked eye and therefore nobody would propose putting inspectors in a facility full time to look for these pathogens.

This being said, the various proposals to increase physical inspections really have little statistical basis to them. A retailer wrote us a letter during the course of our coverage of the massive pistachio recall; you can see the retailer’s letter here.

One of the things that was pointed out is that the Setton facility was inspected by loads of people. We also pointed out that AIB inspected the now infamous Peanut Corporation of America facility. The President gave a speech saying FDA was only able to inspect 5% of relevant food facilities each year. So a typical plant would be visited once every 20 years. Is there the slightest reason to think that if we doubled the budget and so the inspectors came once every 10 years, that it would make a difference?

By law, the beef plants cannot operate without USDA inspectors present. This has not stopped E. coli 0157:H7 contamination.

We don’t even mention all the auditors that every bank in America had — public and private — and they didn’t stop a bank meltdown.

Put another way, although John Manoush speaks the truth when he tells us that, today, “…the purpose of inspectors is to ensure that PREVENTIVE programs (primarily HACCP, but also regulations such as low-acid and acidified canning regs) are in place and are followed” — John is speaking of motivation, not that there is any real evidence that more inspectors produce safer food.

We also think that electing to fund state laboratories rather than more inspections is not quite the decision to fund “response” rather than “prevention.” First of all, if we identify outbreaks sooner, we can do recalls and advise consumers sooner — this can “prevent” consumers from getting ill in the first place.

Second, political funding, in the end, is, well, political. There is no stronger lobby for funding food safety activities of all sorts than people who have actually suffered from known foodborne illnesses. So, if we fund the labs and identify the illnesses, we may well get citizens to demand that government fund the inspections as well.

Many thanks to John Manoush and Manoush Associates for weighing on this important issue.

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