THE BLOG
10/29/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Outsourcing Food Inspection Is Too Hard to Swallow

For generations, Americans have relied on public service workers to inspect the food we eat. In fact, one major concern of the recent government shutdown was that food inspectors would be furloughed, endangering or shutting down the food supply chain across the country.

American public institutions have a long track record of keeping our food disease-free. Yet as this service is increasingly outsourced to for-profit corporations, it is leading to repeated oversight failures that have caused illness and even death. And too often, the for-profit entities that are now responsible for keeping our food safe have conflicts of interest that encourage them to rubber stamp inspections rather than ensure our food is safe.

The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has proposed a "Modernization of Poultry Inspection." But "modernization" is just public relations babble for removing USDA inspectors from poultry lines and letting companies police themselves. That's right. The fox is literally guarding the hen house.

As Food and Water Watch has noted, this "modernization" -- actually, privatization -- "jeopardizes food safety" and prioritizes "poultry industry economic interests over consumers and workers in poultry plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last month on outsourced inspection pilot sites, FSIS's "modernization" did not meet sound standards for data collection. The report also found that "sorting responsibilities on the slaughter line [were] not required or standardized and that faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise[d] concerns about food safety and worker safety." Sorting refers to the process of removing unsafe birds from production.

The GAO report is an unwelcome addition to a pile of evidence showing the perils of food safety privatization. Recall the deadly listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes from Colorado in 2010. An underreported yet highly significant detail of the case was the fact that inspection of the melons had been outsourced to a for-profit corporation:

In 2010, Primus Group food auditors visited a Colorado melon farm run by brothers Ryan and Eric Jensen. The company told the farming brothers how to install a new cooling system. In 2011, the inspectors returned and gave the flawed new system, which violated federal guidelines, a "superior" safety report.

Within a year, 33 cantaloupe consumers had died painful deaths after being infected with Listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacteria that was harbored by the brothers' fruit. Federal investigators concluded that the installation of the new cooling system was a fatal flaw.

According to an investigation conducted by Bloomberg News, the FDA had never inspected the Jensen farm. In fact, the year before the listeria outbreak, the FDA inspected just 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of importers. Instead, the work was done by for-profit entities, like Primus Group, hired by the producers. These auditors are not required to meet any federal standards and only monitor certain guidelines by choice. Those guidelines are set by trade groups made up of food producers like ConAgra and Kraft.

Without rigorous and independent oversight, the Jensen brothers created the "largest food-borne disease outbreak in almost a century."

Taxpayers have long relied on public inspection of the food we eat because, thanks to the accountability and oversight built into a public inspection system, we have come to trust the food we consume. Bungled contracts of roads, schools and prisons are bad enough when only taxpayer dollars are at risk, but in the case of food inspection, the stakes are literally life or death. Handing over control of food inspection to for-profit corporations is just too hard to swallow.