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Friday, October 12, 2012

Food That Sickens Millions Graded Safe By Industry Inspectors

A worker sorts cuts of beef at a plant in Nebraska in March. A new report says for-profit companies are quietly taking over food safety inspections. (AP/Nati Harnik)

In a scathing look into the state of food safety, Bloomberg Markets is out with an in-depth report that says for-profit companies have quietly taken over much of the Food and Drug Administration’s role in inspecting food.

“I was surprised that there are 3,000 deaths a year in the United States from foodborne illness and I’m surprised the extent to which that is sort of acceptable,” reporter John Lippert, who was part of the team that wrote the report, told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “That’s as many people as were killed in the World Trade Center, but yet 3,000 is not something that gets a lot of attention unless you’re right in the middle of an outbreak.”

Third party auditors, as they’re known, are often hired by the food growers themselves, they sometimes don’t visit the plants they inspect and when they do, they only examine what producers ask them to. They also don’t have to make their reports public.

The Bloomberg report tells story after story of people who have gotten sick or even died from eating food that was graded safe by these auditors, including the 7-year-old Ohio girl who died in 2009 after kissing her grandfather in the hospital.

That light kiss on the cheek was enough for her to pick up the bacteria from the ground beef that had sickened him. The beef came from a company, Valley Meats in Illinois, which that same year had received a 95.5 out 100 safety rating from a third-party auditor.

Interview Highlights

A Problem That’s Getting Worse

“There’s a strong indication that this problem could get worse. Right now, as an average consumer, the percentage of food that I eat that’s imported is about 20 percent and we’ve got forecasts quoted in the story that it’ll go to 50 percent by about 2030. So, right away you’re more deeply exposed to lots of countries around the world where the sanitation standards and the food safety culture is just not as well-developed as it is in the United States.”

Tainted Cantaloupe From U.S. Farms

“We talked to the family of William Beach out in Mustang, Oklahoma. He was 87 years old, a retired truck mechanic, and he liked to eat cantaloupe. Well, last year a farm in Colorado started shipping cantaloupe that was tainted with Listeria monocytogenes. One night, William Beach collapsed, his wife found him the next day, they took him to the hospital, and he started bleeding. He started bleeding from his nose and his mouth. He started bleeding so much that he died that day.”

An Under-Funded FDA Leads To Third-Party Inspections

“During the course of the 90s, the food industry itself responded to this vacuum by saying, ‘Okay, well, let’s hire our own auditors,’ and the whole cottage industry sort of grew up dozens of companies in the United States and dozens more overseas, but these are private companies.”

Learning Where Our Food Comes From, And Who To Trust

“Along the way we talked to Darden, which is Red Lobster, and they import tons of seafood every day and they basically test every lot. They’ve got third party auditors, they’ve got their own auditors, and they say with some confidence that the pathogens in their shrimp coming from Vietnam or someplace have been reduced to zero. But when I look at our video of the tilapia in China being fed with feces…”


  • John Lippert, reporter at Bloomberg Markets magazine. He tweets @johnmlippert.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Mike

    So the government can’t afford to inspect food plants– isn’t that what we wanted:  smaller government?

  • burroak

    Excellent, very important topic, that needs further investigation and discussion. Also, this would make a great question for the upcoming town hall presidential debate. Furthermore, by investing  in our nations food health, we could give an jobs infusion in this part of our economy. Thank you Robin for the program, I am hopeful more Americans will becomed more educated on this–at times,  life or death–national issue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spence-Blakely/1251757037 Spence Blakely

    Food safety inspections can’t be 100% effective. How to distinguish between food poisoning of the general population and those with unusual sensitivities?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003176132796 Joe Makela

      the results from the victim’s autopsies were quite conclusive.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spence-Blakely/1251757037 Spence Blakely

        The autopsies would explain why the victims died, but not the effects of food pathogens on most people. The only people studied or autopsied are those affected. How representative of the population are they?

  • Jada56

    It was the food industry itself that lobbied congress to cut FDA’s budget.

  • Beverly Stiles

    Perhaps the food industry should have a program like GDUFA (Generic Drug User Fee Act) — the drug industry being overseen by the FDA is now being required to pay for this FDA inspection. The FDA is (theoretically) no more beholden the industry than they are now, unlike those private auditor hired directly by food producers were. Just a thought.

  • Dorothy

    For detailed information on food safety, check the CDC website, http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety. It gives a pie chart of the foods that cause the most illness and how to protect oneself.  It appears no food group is entirely safe. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003176132796 Joe Makela

    and meanwhile here in Canada XL “FooDs”  is this week’s poster child for unhygienic processing of product.
    listeriose, e.coli, etc.
    need more proof of a world-wide neo-liberal agenda?
    anniversary of NAFTA, time to blow out the candles.

    • Mike

      What does ” neo-liberal” mean?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.gumpert.16 David Gumpert

    This story, important as it is, involves an unfortunate mixing of apples
    and oranges in terms of the data at its heart. The story about private
    auditors is indicative of a real problem and deserves official
    attention. The data on which it is based–that 3,000 people die each year from food-borne illness–is highly questionable. That figure is a CDC estimate, and indications are it may be a highly inaccurate estimate, on the high side.

    actual figures from the CDC, based on reports from state public health
    departments, shows 22 deaths from foodborne illness  in the most recent
    year for which data is available (2008).

    about it–cause of death is something that is regularly tracked by
    hospitals and doctors. The notion that lots of deaths from outbreaks of
    foodborne illness are occurring without official knowledge is

    So, while it’s important to examine the credibility
    of the auditing companies and the approach of using private auditors to
    confirm food safety, it’s likely a mistake to think that the problem
    represented by their failings is somehow just the tip of a vast iceberg
    of deaths. 

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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