Inspections minimize contamination, but the key to avoiding problems is in prevention.

The September issue of Food Protection Trends featured an article entitled “More Inspection Won’t Stop Food Contamination.” The article summarized the American Society for Quality’s (ASQ) June 2007 quarterly quality report and emphasized that the key is not inspection, but prevention. The report identified five high-impact areas that can help minimize food contamination: 

1. Reinforced Maintenance Procedures – This refers to reinforcement of training and hygiene practices essential to safe food handling.

2. Emphasizing Consumer Education – Far too many problems occur because consumers fail to handle foods properly at home and at retail establishments. Illnesses stemming from mishandling at these venues far exceed those caused by problems in food processing operations.

3. Strengthened Regulatory Agencies in High-Risk Areas – It is essential that regulatory agencies be more proactive in high-risk areas where problems could arise.  This includes situations where deliberate contamination of food is a real threat and those where accidental contamination may occur.

4. Increased Diligence by Food Companies – Processors need to better understand potential risks and take steps to address them. The pet food problems traced to ingredients from China, in reality, were supply chain failures, not regulation failures.

5. More Effective Inspections – More inspections is not the answer. Inspections should be targeted and based on risk.

I agree not only with the report, but with the thought processes behind it. I am sure I am not the only person who has visited a facility with signs posted stating the plant has met certain standards and achieved a particular score from its audit company. After I conducted some of my inspections, I had serious doubts about previous audits. I have been in some “certified” facilities whose product I simply would not eat.

 Unfortunately, we have entered an era where third-party inspections have become an extremely competitive growth industry. Not all third-party audits or inspections are bad, but many food processors are a revolving door for the audit firms. This is especially hard on ingredient suppliers and processors supplying the foodservice industry. They are often subject to as many as 20 audits a year, which can range from one to five days.

Even though most audits developed by various firms are similar in design, criteria are often weighted differently and requirements may vary. The saddest thing is that many firms state audits are based on “their standards.” Standards are practices or procedures established by consensus, not something developed by an individual firm. Consequently, the processor is often forced to change a procedure simply to meet an audit “requirement,” even though what it’s currently doing is effective.

For example, one firm downgrades companies if they do not have their HACCP plans verified and validated by a third party. I have closely examined HACCP regulations in this country and in others and have yet to find such a requirement.

Kudos to the ASQ report! May all future inspections focus on finding and filling gaps.