Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contamination at facilities that received passing grades on private food safety audits highlight serious gaps in the current audit system. Mandatory audits by third party companies aim to prevent foodborne hazards by assessing compliance with food safety standards. However, glaring weaknesses exist in how these audits are performed, reported, and regulated. To fulfill the purpose of reducing foodborne diseases that sicken 48 million Americans annually, audit reform must be treated as a public health imperative.
Audits originated as voluntary quality assurance measures by food corporations, but health incidents in the 1990s prompted the federal government to mandate audits for certain high-risk foods. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 further expanded required audits for food importers and certain domestic producers. Private accrediting bodies certify third party auditing companies who then sell their services to food facilities. Typical audits involve examining operations for adherence to safety guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Checks for contamination risks, sanitation, employee practices, supply chain control, record keeping, and more are standard.
While this system constitutes an extensive commercial network designed to prevent health hazards, it clearly continues to fall short. Outbreaks with links to passing audit scores at source facilities recur, revealing that current audits fail to accurately assess the full spectrum of vulnerabilities that lead to contamination. For example, in 2018 an E. coli outbreak at romaine lettuce farms was ultimately traced back to operations that earned a 96% compliance score just days before the outbreak. This and similar cases demand analysis into what transformations are required to enable audits to reliably prevent foodborne hazards before they occur.
Audits are intended to protect the public, but the financial relationship between food companies and auditors poses an inherent conflict of interest. Auditors are typically paid directly by the business, so leniency in reporting can support future business. The FDA reported that a facility linked to a listeria outbreak had shopped around for an auditor that would provide a “superior rating.” This “pay to play” system lacks accountability and meaningful government oversight, further enabling ongoing safety gaps.
In addition to this foundation of bias, audit methods are failing to thoroughly evaluate the safety cultures of facilities. Checklist reports concentrate on technical factors like equipment temperature and sanitizer strength. But cultural elements, like employee attitudes toward safety protocols, are vastly important. Developing more rigorous means to assess safety culture is critical to impact behaviors that either prevent or enable risky conditions.
Compounding existing weaknesses in auditing practices is an overall lack of transparency. Audit reports are proprietary without public access, masking flaws and hindering reform efforts. Opening reports would also inform research on the highest frequency violations and barriers to compliance. Moreover, graded scoring systems are not standardized, so a high score from one auditor is not necessarily equivalent to that of another company. This allows scoring manipulation and confusion over what constitutes adequacy.
Constructing an audit system that reliably upholds food safety requires four key improvements: national safety standards, auditor independence, cultural analysis inclusion, and transparency. First, a unified national framework should outline expectations for food testing, facility conditions, sanitation, supply chain auditing and more. Variability across current auditor interpretations allows unsafe loopholes. Clear, specific FDA and USDA criteria tailored for each food would enable appropriately strict evaluations.
Next, auditors must be freed of financial ties to create accountability. Models where auditors are randomly assigned by and report directly to state or federal agencies would reduce bias. Furthermore, increasing surprise visits with fines for violations would motivate continuous adherence to policies, instead of pre-audit temporary fixes. Establishing watchdog programs for whistleblowers to report flaws would also foster accountability.
Assessing organizational culture must also become a focal point, not just operational technicalities. Tools like anonymous employee surveys and interviews provide valuable insight on safety norms and real working conditions. Using behavioral observation methods and scoring perceived management commitment would reveal the cultural risk factors audit checklists overlook.
Finally, complete transparency of reports must be mandated to impact change. A public database of all audit violations, scores, company ties, and accredited auditors would enable research on problematic patterns needing redress. Transparency empowers reform.
These incidents epitomize how current audits frequently fail to identify serious hazards, despite process and condition checks being core purposes of these food safety mechanisms. Without addressing underlying flaws leading to inaccurate assessments, audits will remain unreliable guardians of public health.
In 2016, prepackaged salads produced at a Dole facility in Ohio were linked to a widespread listeria outbreak that resulted in four deaths and over thirty hospitalizations across the U.S. and Canada. The facility had passed third party audits just months prior to the outbreak, indicating major gaps in the audit procedures and scoring systems. Alarmingly, FDA inspectors later uncovered standing water, condensation, and general unsanitation at the same facility – red flags for listeria risk seemingly overlooked by the high-scoring audits.
In 2019-2020, over 400 people across 39 states contracted salmonella poisoning from contaminated Italian-style meats produced by Triple T Specialty Meats. An audit of the facility had been conducted only a month before the CDC traced back illnesses to the source. Once again, glaring food safety violations missed on the audit were later documented by inspectors, including the presence of nearly an inch of standing water and residue buildup on equipment. Lacking production records further pointed to substantial process oversight issues not reflected in the company’s audit grades.
Food safety audits thoroughly examine hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plans as a core component. HACCP plans outline procedures for controlling biological, chemical, and physical food risks. Developing, implementing, and managing effective HACCP systems can be challenging without the right tools. This is where HACCP software becomes invaluable for both passing audits and ensuring safe food. HACCP software such as Food Guard automatically creates plans tailored to specific facilities. The programs lead users through methodically identifying hazards, defining critical control points, setting precise parameters like temperature maximums, assigning employee monitoring tasks, designing testing procedures, and outlining corrective actions for deviations. The software then provides digital management of all reporting related to the HACCP plan, including compliance records, testing logs, violation alerts, training verification, and more. Having such an organized digital system makes all components visible and audit-ready to demonstrate rigorously controlled food safety processes. Essentially, HACCP software takes the complexity out of developing science-based preventative practices and the documentation that auditors evaluate. Utilizing this technology allows facilities to proactively implement strong food safety foundations.
Strengthening audits prevents hazards proactively, saving lives and healthcare costs. With foodborne sickness striking 1 in 6 annually at over $50 billion in related expenses, prioritizing more rigorous auditing provides immense public benefit. Closing gaps where contaminated food continues to slip through demands addressing root flaws in auditor bias and narrow methods. By creating an audit system founded on standardized federal criteria, independence, cultural assessments and transparency, realization of audits’ vital preventative purpose is within reach. Reform requires persistent, coordinated effort, but the potential to significantly reduce foodborne illness makes undoubtedly makes it a worthy pursuit. Constructive policy change and public advocacy for progress both constitute essential paths forward.