WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators looking into an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe linked to 30 deaths last year found that third-party auditors who gave Colorado's Jensen Farms a "superior" rating just before the outbreak largely ignored government guidance on food safety.
A bipartisan report released Tuesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee quotes a representative of an auditing company that graded the facility two months before the outbreak as saying audits are not intended to help clients improve food safety standards. Retailers often rely on such audits to make sure food they buy is safe.
Democrats on the panel asked the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on such third-party auditors, who often are the only outside entities to inspect food facilities. A food safety law signed last year will boost FDA inspections of such facilities, but money to carry out those inspections is not guaranteed from Congress.
"Weaknesses in third-party auditors represent a significant gap in the food safety system," the Democrats said. Republicans on the committee signed the report but did not echo the Democratic call for more oversight.
The FDA currently does not regulate third-party auditors. The food safety law requires the agency to improve third-party audits of food facilities abroad that export to the United States, but does not address domestic audits.
Siobhan Delancey, spokeswoman for the FDA, said in a statement that new standards under the law enacted last year will still go a long way toward improving food safety.
"There are a number of elements of the proposed rule that, had Jensen Farms been in compliance, would have significantly reduced the risk of that outbreak occurring," she said.
The congressional report notes that Primus Labs, the auditor hired by Holly, Colo.-based Jensen Farms, is one of the nation's largest food facility auditors. The company told the committee that the vast majority of the thousands of audits it completes each year receive passing grades – 98.7 percent in 2010, 97.5 percent in 2009 and 98.1 percent in 2008.
The president of the company, Robert Stovicek, told the investigators that Primus Labs would be "a rogue element if they tried to pick winners and losers" and that the company does not have the expertise to determine which practices should be pushed by industry. A subcontractor who audited the cantaloupe farm told the committee that auditors dock points if a facility is not following specific FDA regulations but do not account for the agency's many guidances on how best to keep food safe.
The outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe this fall was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years. Thirty people died, 146 people were sickened and one woman suffered a miscarriage after eating the tainted cantaloupe, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA said in October that pools of dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment at Jensen Farms probably were to blame. Government investigators found several positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment in the Jensen Farms packing facility and on fruit that had been held there. The farm also had stopped using antibacterial washes and did not "pre-cool" cantaloupes off the fields to reduce bacteria growth, the FDA said.
The Republican-led committee declined to hold a hearing on the outbreak but released the bipartisan report – including summaries of interviews with the FDA, the owners of the farm and the auditors – instead. The report noted that many in the food industry have required better audits since the cantaloupe outbreak, and did not call for the FDA to step up action. Democrats, who had called for a hearing on the matter, wrote the separate letter to the agency after the report was released asking for stricter oversight.
Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who is suing Jensen Farms on behalf of several of the victims, said government inspectors should be present at food facilities more often.
"The present audit system is fraught with conflicts and is designed not to find safety problems, but to keep food – regardless of quality – flowing from farm to fork," he said.