PUT THE “PUBLIC” BACK IN PUBLIC SAFETY

The report came from the official inspector in March 2008, and its conclusion was unequivocal: “The overall food safety level of this facility,” he wrote, “was considered to be: SUPERIOR.”

The report came from the official inspector in March 2008, and its conclusion was unequivocal: “The overall food safety level of this facility,” he wrote, “was considered to be: SUPERIOR.”

The facility in question was the Peanut Corporation of America’s processing plant in Georgia. Yes, that’s the very one that then shipped salmonella-contaminated products all across America last year – killing nine people and sickening more than 22,000.

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How could the inspector have been so disastrously wrong about a plant that actually was alive with deadly salmonella? Well, the inspection system itself is grossly flawed. In this case, corporate officials were given advance notice that the inspector would be coming. He was allowed only one day to check a plant that handles millions of pounds of peanuts a month. This inspector’s expertise is in fresh produce, not goobers – he didn’t even know that salmonella can thrive in peanuts. Besides, he was not required to test for salmonella.

Sheesh! Is this the best we can expect from our government’s food safety system? Uh… well, that’s another problem. You see, the inspector doesn’t work for the public. Instead, he works for a private food-safety audit firm. He gets his inspection gigs by soliciting food processors directly, and the processors pay his salary. Cozy, no?

This is no isolated case. More than 200 companies are in business to provide safety audits for processors of everything from meat to veggies. Because Washington has carelessly pushed privatization policies and slashed federal inspection budgets, these for-profit companies now perform the bulk of America’s food-safety inspections – essentially letting the processors buy a phony seal of approval.

Come on Congress, come on Obama – let’s put the “public” back in public safety. Pronto.

“Food Safety Problems Elude Private Inspectors,” The New York Times, March 6, 2009.

“Battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”

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