With food-borne illnesses and recalls rising, the use of private inspectors has grown rapidly in the past decade as companies try to protect themselves from lawsuits and tainted products that can damage their brand names. But experts agree that the inspections often do not translate into safer products for consumers.
David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush, calls this situation a business strategy, not a public-health strategy. In fact, according to Mansour Samadpour, who owns a food-testing firm that does not perform audits, most foodmakers, even those with problems, sail through their inspections. He has not seen a single company that has had an outbreak or recall that didn't have a series of audits with really high scores.
Industry experts say that under the best circumstances the audits can be useful. But a key failure is that auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might fear they will lose business if they don't give high ratings.