Often, For-Profit Firms, Not FDA, Inspects Food


John Lippert, senior writer, Bloomberg Markets
Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist, University of California, Davis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illnesses kill some 3,000 people in the U.S. each year. Often, the job of keeping America's food supply safe falls to for-profit companies with connections to the food producers they're supposed to inspect.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. An investigative report on food safety in Bloomberg Markets magazine begins with the story of William Beech(ph), an 87-year-old retired tractor mechanic who loved cantaloupe, ate it almost every day, and suffered a painful death that was later traced to melons contaminate with Listeria.

Beech was one of more than 30 who died in that outbreak last year, the deadliest in almost 100 years, which originated on a farm in Colorado which had just been inspected and received a nearly perfect score, not by the FDA but by a private company that isn't supervised by the government and not required to meet any federal standards.

If you grow fruits and vegetables, process produce or sell it, who makes sure your food is safe? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, six myths of the Osama bin Laden raid, but first John Lippert joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago, he's a senior writer at Bloomberg's Markets magazine and co-author of the report "Danger on Your Dinner Plate" that runs in the November issue. And nice to have you with us today.

JOHN LIPPERT: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And you wrote that the FDA never inspected Jensen Farm, which is where those contaminated cantaloupes came from.

LIPPERT: Well, that's right, and the company that did, I mean, the main inspector, auditor, PrimusLabs of Santa Maria, California, they outsourced it to a company called Bio Foods, and the guy from Bio Foods spent about four hours on the site. You know, later there was - after the big outbreak, there was congressional testimony where the congressional investigators were wondering whether, a year ahead of this outbreak, whether a recommendation from Bio Foods to shift to a new kind of washing system for the cantaloupe may have actually done more harm than good.

So as you say, that was a sort of starting point. I mean Mr. Beech, one night last year, he walked out into the living room in the middle of the night. For some reason he got himself dressed, but then he got in the living room, collapsed. His wife found him, so then they took him to the hospital, and then he started bleeding. He started bleeding through his nose and his mouth, and suddenly there was blood splattered all over the doctor, splattered all over the bed, you know, splattered all over the room.

So one thing that's clear about this is that X number of people, particularly older or younger or people with compromised immune system, they don't just - some people just don't get a little bit sick, they get horrifically sick. And that's just - I mean that's just a starting point for that story.

CONAN: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 3,000 Americans die every year from contaminated food, and obviously many more are sickened by it. But how did this system - how did we come up with this system where food inspections are not done by government agents but by private companies?

LIPPERT: Well, I think the main thing is just sort of lack of resources. It's not exactly that we don't know how to do better in terms of food safety, but nobody wants to pay for it. So, you know, the taxpayer or the Congress supposedly representing the taxpayers don't want to pay for it. The retailers, according to people we quote in the story, don't want to pay for it.

So - but anyway, over the last 20 or 30 years, the resources available for the Food Department of the FDA just did not keep up with the growth of the economy and growth of food consumption generally, and the - about 20 years ago, in the '90s, companies like Wal-Mart started saying, hey, well, why don't we just fill the vacuum ourselves.

And they said let's have some auditors. And a whole cottage industry grew up, just dozens of companies, some of which are mom-and-pop and some of which are pretty big. But as that mom-and-pop and the sort of cottage industry just grew up, there was no federal oversight, and there's still no federal requirements.

So basically if I'm running a lab, I mean if I'm running one of these audit companies, in some cases, in many cases, it's basically up to me what constitutes a proper audit, what constitutes a safe manufacturing process or not. So basically it's the private sector filling a vacuum created by lack of resources that are available for the Food Department of the FDA.

CONAN: Because the food producers want a certificate of safety. They want to show it to the wholesaler or to the retailer to say, look, we've been inspected, we're in good shape. It's a marketing thing.

LIPPERT: Right, but the question is, I mean we found - like we were down in Mexico. We found a grape tomato producer shipping with a box that said audited by PrimusLabs, and in some - you know, and in that particular case PrimusLabs didn't have a record of this. So that's one level of problem.

But another level of problem is just basically what does it mean when you see that safety audit and - or when you see that stamp on the box. And I think most people, when they see that, they think, well, OK, that means the food is safe. And it may mean that, but it may not. Like the main example, or the way I try to describe it, is, you know, everybody's in favor of clean bathrooms.

All right, so the food producer, you know, will have a requirement that, OK, you know, we're going to wash our bathroom once a week or something like that. The auditor will come in and say, OK, let me see the written document that requires the bathroom to be audited, and then they'll say let me see the log that proves that it actually was audited over the last few months or whatever, and that's a good thing.

I mean clean bathrooms are better than not clean, but that doesn't mean, number one, that necessarily that the guy was crawling up underneath the production machinery, and maybe there's a little crack in the foundation, and maybe there's a little harbor where, you know, Listeria or something is going to grow.

And it doesn't necessarily mean they were down there with a Q-tip sort of swabbing and trying to test what they found in that little crack. And it doesn't necessarily mean either that they were testing like fresh-cut lettuce; they weren't necessarily testing the lettuce itself, what are the chemical - what are the pathogens that may or may not be in there.

But they do have an audit certificate that says a series of requirements, and I use the example of the clean bathroom, but there's other things, and they have a certificate saying we did certain safety procedures, but that's not the same thing as saying the food itself is safe, even though that may be the conclusion a lot of people would draw when they see that stamp on the box.

CONAN: We're talking with John Lippert, a senior writer for Bloomberg Markets magazine, co-author of the report "Danger on Your Dinner Plate" that's running in the November issue of the magazine. If you grow fruits or vegetables, or if you process them, call and tell us who makes sure your food is safe, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And John Lippert, you also write that in some cases these - the food processors or the food growers can say, well, to extend your analogy, do the inspection but just don't look in that toilet.

LIPPERT: Right, or they'll say, you know, look in Warehouse A, or don't look in Warehouse B. I mean one of the sort of fundamental questions that we ran across is if I'm an auditor and I'm auditing your factory, I mean you're the one that pays me, you're the one that selects me. It's sort of always in the back of my mind there's a question of if I'm too aggressive, and you know, I make you angry, I may not get invited back the next year.

So there's that sort of built-in pressure. And we quote one former food inspector who now runs a microbiological consulting company up in Wisconsin, and you know, he said that, you know, a lot of these companies that are food producers definitely don't want this auditor down on their knees doing the microbiological swab because they've got, you know, a factory full of, you know, dozens of employees, let's say, or, you know, and lots and lots of inventory moving through the factory.

They don't want you, without any warning, sort of shutting the whole place down because (unintelligible) look, my test has salmonella in it. So they, you know, they - so they can - you know, they - in lots of cases they can kind of control what you do and what you don't do. Now, one of the things that...

CONAN: Excuse me, I just wanted to get a caller in on the conversation again.

LIPPERT: All right, go ahead.

CONAN: Our phone number's 800-989-8255. And Gary's on the line, Gary calling us from Berkeley.

GARY: Hello, I want to thank you for the discussion. I'm an organic farmer in Berkeley, California, and seven years ago I bought a farm to expand. And I wanted to be certified, and I think your caller's - your guest's point is well-taken. I tried to be certified just for organic certification. After going back and forth with the certifier on the phone, he said, look, just send me a check for $4,000 and we'll send you certification without even coming to inspect the farm.

I think we as citizens, as consumers, have a responsibility to develop relationships with local purveyors of produce, with our local green grocers, and let them have the responsibility to develop relationships with farmers. We've got a great example of that here in Berkeley in the Monterrey market, where organic certification is surpassed by organically grown, and that means it's certified by the owners of the market, who our local community trust very highly to develop these relationships.

CONAN: Would you rather, Gary, that as opposed to these, well, industry standards you're talking about, I guess, for organic growers, but would you rather that there was a government inspector who says here you go, you meet all the qualifications, go ahead?

GARY: I'd rather we take responsibility for our own food in the long run, and I think that whether it's a government certification or a private certification, either of those is going to be faulted either through graft or (technical difficulties) management. So I think we need to really take responsibility for our own lives and develop these relationships with our local community growers and...

CONAN: OK, thanks very much, Gary. I think your phone's cutting out, but thanks very much for the phone call, we appreciate it. And John Lippert, companies ultimately are responsible for the safety of their own food, no?

LIPPERT: Well, that's right, although I want to say something, that I don't - you know, I'm a reporter and I do my job as a reporter. I don't claim to be a scientist or sort of - so having - but I did - through the course of this reporting, we did hear many times a common theme or a refrain, which is that local does not necessarily mean safe.

I mean it may and it may not, and we, we were chasing, you know, in Illinois, sprouts like alfalfa sprouts, fresh-grown. You know, there were a series of outbreaks related to that, and you know, they sell - that particular company sells at the farmer's market I go to every week in Chicago.

But that's one thing. I just - and I guess that's a whole sort of - a whole debate in itself, but...

CONAN: Small, local, organic may be better, or it may not. We...

LIPPERT: And the other thing is...

CONAN: Sorry, we have to cut away for a small break. Please stay with us if you would. We're talking about who is and who isn't inspecting produce. If you grow fruits and vegetables, process produce or sell it, who makes sure it's safe? 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Some 3,000 Americans die every year from food-borne illnesses. That's according to the CDC. Tens of millions more get sick. An investigative report in Bloomberg Markets magazine tells part of that story, about who's making sure the produce we eat is safe. John Lippert is with us. He's a senior writer for Bloomberg Markets magazine, co-author of the report "Danger On Your Dinner Plate" in the November issue.

There's a link to the story at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you grow fruits and vegetables, process produce or sell it, who makes sure the food is safe? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Just a moment ago, John Lippert mentioned that he's a reporter, not a scientist. Well, joining us now by phone from his office at the University of California Davis is Trevor Suslow. He's an extension research specialist at the university's Department of Plant Sciences, and nice to have you with us today.

TREVOR SUSLOW: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And going back to that case of the contaminated cantaloupes that had Listeria, what went wrong?

SUSLOW: Well, I think the FDA investigative report cites a number of potential problems. One of the key areas that we feel was integrally involved was the decision to shift from a cooling and wash system that was chlorinated to one that was not.

CONAN: And so just that decision allowed the contamination to spread and eventually cost the lives of, what, 33 people.

SUSLOW: Difficult to prove with absolute certainty, but I think the evidence supports a likelihood that that piece of used equipment may have come in with the Listeria already on it.

CONAN: And as you look at the system that we have now, these private auditors who do most of the inspections for - without - there's no government standards as far as I know. Would there be a better way?

SUSLOW: I think that the third-party audit system itself provides a general good service. It could stand quite a bit of improvement and standardization of training for the auditors, and also to begin to bring in some of the government inspections as at least an option.

CONAN: At least an option, but that would require an increase in resources for the FDA, no?

SUSLOW: That's correct, and that's why I keep it as an option. Certainly I think their responsibility now, under the Food Safety Modernization Act, to become involved in ensuring that auditors have the training, education and, you know, certain standards for them, as well as standards for the industry, to implement its food safety system is an important step forward.

CONAN: Wouldn't it be in the interest of the industry to have a set of standards so that their produce could be interchangeable, for one thing?

SUSLOW: Well, the industry has certainly been working towards that. There are several commodity groups that have uniform standards, and they've elected to use government inspectors commissioned by the USDA to, you know, have that objective review.

The industry has also developed a series of what are called harmonized good agricultural practices, which set a format that is interchangeable and then can be improved for each commodity, each scale of operations. So they've taken, I think, significant strides in that direction.

CONAN: But the general - John Lippert, forgive me if I'm putting words in your mouth, but after reading your article, it suggests that the system of having effectively the industry police itself and hiring its own inspectors and dictating the terms of the inspection, well, it's probably not a wise system.

SUSLOW: Well, I think it has its flaws. Sorry.

CONAN: OK, John Lippert, go ahead.

LIPPERT: Well, one of the big sort of overarching framework pieces of the article is right now as an average consumer, the amount of food that I eat in the U.S. that's imported is about 20 percent. And we quoted one expert saying that number could go to 50 percent by 2030. And so we're looking at a sort of radical change in the nature of the food we eat.

And so we did some reporting in Vietnam, we did some reporting on China, we did some reporting in Mexico, and in all those cases we saw world-class, you know, you can eat off the floor and all that good stuff, but we also saw conditions that were horrific. And for instance, we - in Mexico, grape tomatoes, an 11-year-old kid that's working the harvest with his parents, and you know, there's no - the only bathroom, the so-called bathroom they have is too gross for him to want to use it.

So he, you know, relieves himself in the bushes, and then when he's done, he wipes his hands on his jeans and goes back to work on the harvest. And so I think our reporting shows that going from 20 percent imported to 50 percent is associated with a higher level of risk.

Now, when Trevor talked about the Food Safety Modernization Act, I mean that was one of the main motivations that Congress passed the law, was they saw this increase coming, and one of the things that that law does is say you can - the FDA can deputize, basically, these private auditors and conduct inspections overseas on the FDA's behalf and also quote-unquote deputize like the government of Mexico, which is - you know, and then you can argue is that the best approach or not.

But before we can get to that argument, the first thing we've got to come to grips with is the FDA is saying on the record, you know, we don't have the money to implement this law. So - and when they don't have the money to implement it now, I'm not even talking about the fiscal cliff or let's - you know, let's reduce the budget deficit and cut programs.

So here's - you know, in a rare act of bipartisan support, the Congress passed this food safety law and said let's try to come to grips with this risk associated with imports, and now, as of right now, the FDA is saying we don't have the money to implement it. This law may never see the light of day, basically.

And the increase we're talking about in terms of the imported food, that is going to happen. That's the train coming down the tracks. That - I mean nobody's going to change that, and the question is whether our - either public or private or some mixture, whether our safety networks are going to be up and running in time for us to get ready for when that train gets here.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Carolyn(ph), Carolyn with us from Brighton, Michigan.

CAROLYN: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CAROLYN: I just want to make a quick point for, like, small local growers. I work on a pretty small acreage, like four or five acres of vegetables, non-certified organic farm, and because of our size and the direct marketing type of farming that we do, we don't really have any one third party come to certify. We're able to hold ourselves accountable, and our customers are able to come actually visit our farm, meet us and talk to us, and in that way I find that we are actually held to higher standards than are often seen.

CONAN: And Thomas in Kalamazoo echoes your point, Carolyn. He writes: Please note these problems with contamination are mainly related to large-scale industrial farming. Normally the food people get from small local producers is not affected. However, these small farmers are very badly affected when news stories scare people away from entire categories of produce without mentioning this distinction.

For example, E. coli in beef mostly results from conditions in feed lot operations - again, we're talking about produce, not cattle. A similar contamination of large batches of spinach, peanuts, et cetera, does not affect the small farmer who picks tomatoes from his or her garden and so on.

Trevor Suslow, we heard John Lippert say, well, maybe so but maybe not, and does smaller mean safer?

SUSLOW: Not necessarily. I absolutely support what the caller and the person that emailed in, you know, their approaches, and that's certainly what we try and promote and help provide training to identify risks and deal with it on the farm yourselves. But it's really not solely an import issue.

There certainly are examples of domestic outbreaks and illness caused by both large farms and very small operations, and we have to deal with it systematically and comprehensively.

CONAN: Carolyn, thanks very much for the call.

CAROLYN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe. Joe's on the line with us from Minneapolis.

JOE: How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOE: So I guess I kind of disagree with the author of your article, and (unintelligible) I'm a wholesaler, right. I represent a company that goes through, you know, trucks and trucks and truckloads of produce and goes to retailers and food service places throughout the Midwest. And we have, like, all these different audits, Primus one of them.

There's another one called GFSI, which is Global Food Safety Initiative. It's like the mother of all audits. And I think the article author doesn't realize that, like, there's liabilities, right?

We want to do our best to give the safest product because we're on the line if somebody gets sick. A good example and I'm sure the guys from U.C. Davis could actually test for this. There's an onion producer that had a recall on sliced onions recently, and he actually had to shut down a facility in Florida, I believe. And since then, he's lost like 40 percent of his business, you know? Nobody wants to sell a tainted product. And having a third-party audit actually keeps your prices down, and it's the smartest way of doing things as of right now, because it's product, it's produce, it's grown outside. Birds fly around, and they go to bathroom on your product. It's like driving, you know? Car crashes are inevitable. It's - you can only do the best you can.

CONAN: Trevor Suslow, is liability enough to police the system?

SUSLOW: Well, it definitely is a great motivator, and I agree that the produce industry has taken great strides in addressing this over the last, you know, 15 years and especially over the last five years. But what I think the article does show and the information that they made available to me to look at as they were going through developing it, basically was for me, you know, demoralizing that a very good, you know, retailer, a very good importer could overlook the deficiencies in the operations that they clearly documented were going on. And that the third-party audit system simply wasn't capturing that in a way that got people's attention enough. That's what we need to fix.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOE: Yeah. Bye.

CONAN: And following up on his point, this is an email from Ashwin(ph): Can retailers be held responsible for the produce they sell? Hence, are they liable for contaminated produce given the power and the supply chain they can, in the long run, reward high-quality growers and punish the others. Basically, responsibility to the contamination should be the source of purchase in the supply chain? This is - model is not unheard of. In some countries, websites are responsible for the content they display. To the best of my knowledge in Germany, YouTube is liable for copyright infringements. I'm not sure if that analogy is perfect. But, John Lippert, this company that, for example, the farm that produced the cantaloupe at the beginning of our story, they are the subject of a lawsuit, correct?

LIPPERT: They are, and we talked to the lawyer in that case - Bill Marler - out in Seattle, and as it happens, the farm is bankrupt and didn't have a lot of assets to begin with. The - and so Mr. Marler is, sort of, working his way back to the food chain, and in this case, in that cantaloupe outbreak, it includes some very big retailers - not in relation to Mr. Beach(ph) specifically, but in the outbreak. And these big retailers include Wayland's and Wal-Mart, and it sort of vary state by state.

In some cases, there's crystal clear sort of direct liability, and there's going to be a lot of damage claim money changing hands. But in other cases - in other states, it's a little - not so clear. So - but what Mr. Marler - and Mr. Marler is sort of well-known in this arena. And he was involved with the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the '90s. And what he said is, yeah, there - you know, there's liability. There's big visible outbreaks like Jack in the Box or this cantaloupe.

And there's big losses, and there's damage claims. And people do, do better. I mean, clearly, E. coli is less of a threat in beef now than it was in 1994. But he's - but then he says also, after these cases are out of the headlines and after they're out of the courts, then there is, you know, the, sort of, status quo, sort of...

CONAN: Re-establish itself. Sure. Yeah.

LIPPERT: ...reasserts itself, you know? And so the sort of drama and the spotlight fades and - as some of these problems start cropping back up. At least that's Mr. Marler's take on it.

CONAN: John Lippert, senior writer for Bloomberg Markets magazine. Also with us is Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist at the University of California, Davis's Department of Plant Sciences. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Tom on the line. Tom with us from San Antonio.

TOM: Hey, Neal. I listen to your show every day, I really love it.

CONAN: Thank you.

TOM: I work for the largest food distributor in America with sales of 40 billion in food last year. And one thing that we require from anybody who wants to have us distribute a product, is whole harmless insurance. It's a $5 million policy that covers all of our customers in case anybody does get sick from a product. As a company, we also hire and have on staff one of the largest inspection groups there is out in Salinas, California, where we procure most of our produce. We have almost 200 inspectors that inspect the product on a daily basis before it's sent to any of our warehouse locations.

CONAN: And is that part of the insurance policy too, that these...

TOM: That's part of the insurance policy also. As a matter of fact, every single plant that produces a product that we distribute is inspected at least two or three times a year by our staff of inspectors. And we're talking seafood, produce, meat, any type of product that there is, is inspected by us. And once again, that's all covered under the whole harmless insurance. What people don't realize is if they go to a farmers' market to buy a product, it's kind of a buyer beware situation.

You don't know where that product came from, who produced it. You don't know any background or anything about that product. Another advantage of our company is if there is a recall, we have instantaneous notification to all of our customers about any product that is being recalled. We have the ability, through a massive computer system to track all of our products delivered to all of our customers. We know the date, time. It's all bar-coded, scanned and in our system.

CONAN: Interesting. Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: You bet, Neal.

CONAN: And thanks for the kind words. Trevor Suslow, just before we leave - we just have about a minute left - I wanted to ask you, is the progress toward a - is there progress toward a more coherent, a better system?

SUSLOW: Well, there's certainly progress in that there's a much more open and robust dialogue going on, about how to fix, how to improve and how to try and maintain or improve confidence among consumers in what is broadly a very safe food system. I think the biggest challenges are to get people to recognize that there are risks that they are not controlling and to get the information needed to make that part of the program that then gets audited.

CONAN: Trevor Suslow, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SUSLOW: You're very welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Trevor Suslow at the University of California, Davis Department of Plant Sciences. And John Lippert joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks very much for your time today.

LIPPERT: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: John Lippert, a senior writer for Bloomberg Markets magazine. Up next, six myths about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It came up again in last night's debate. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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