WASHINGTON William Beach loved cantaloupe so much so that starting in June last year he ate it almost every day. By August, the 87-year-old retired tractor mechanic from Mustang, Okla., was complaining to his family that he was fatigued, with pain everywhere in his body.
On Sept. 1, 2011, Beach got out of bed in the middle of the night, put his clothes on and walked into the living room. His wife, Monette, found him collapsed on the floor in the morning. At the hospital, blood poured from his mouth and nose, splattering sheets, bed rails and physicians.
He died that night, a victim of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can lead to a blood infection and damage to the brain and spinal cord.
Beach was one of 33 people killed by listeria that was later traced by the Food and Drug Administration and state officials to contaminated cantaloupes from one Colorado farm. It was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in the United States in almost 100 years.
He died in terror and pain, says his daughter Debbie Frederick.
About seven weeks after Beach started eating cantaloupes, a private, for-profit inspection company awarded a top safety rating to Jensen Farms, the Granada, Colo., grower of his toxic fruit. The approval meant retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores and Wegmans Food Markets could sell Jensen melons.
The FDA, a federal agency nominally responsible for overseeing most food safety, had never inspected Jensen.
During the past two decades, the food industry has taken over much of the FDAs role in ensuring what Americans eat is safe. The agency cant come close to vetting its jurisdiction of $1.2 trillion in annual food sales.
In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers. The FDA has had no rules for how often food producers must be inspected.
The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies known as third-party auditors who arent required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision. Some of these monitors choose to follow guidelines from trade groups that include ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods and Walmart.
The private inspectors that companies select often check only those areas their clients ask them to review. That means they can miss deadly pathogens lurking in places they never examined.
Food sickens 48 million Americans a year, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 killed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. The rate of infections linked to foodborne salmonella, which causes the most illnesses and deaths, rose 10 percent from 2006 to 2010.
The United States had 37 recalls of fruits and vegetables in 2011, up from two in 2005. Many of the victims of contaminated food are those with under-developed or weakened immune systems, such as children and the elderly.
What for-hire auditors do is cloaked in secrecy; they dont have to make their findings public. Bloomberg Markets magazine obtained four audit reports and three audit certificates through court cases, congressional investigations and company websites.
Six audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant either before or right after they supplied toxic food.
Collectively, these growers and processors were responsible for tainted food that sickened 2,936 people and killed 43 in 50 states.
The outbreaks were seeing are endless, says Doug Powell, lead author of an Aug. 30, 2012, study on third-party monitors called Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough. Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, says Americans are at risk whenever they go to a supermarket.
You need to be in a culture that takes food safety seriously, Powell says. Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless.
In some cases, for-hire auditors have financial ties to executives at companies theyre reviewing. AIB International Inc., a Manhattan, Kan., auditor that awarded top marks to producers that sold toxic food, has had board members who are top managers at companies that are clients.
Executives of Flowers Foods, which makes Tastykake, and Grupo Bimbo in Mexico City, which makes Entenmanns pastries, Sara Lee baked goods and Wonder Bread, serve or have served on AIBs board.
Theres a fundamental conflict, says David Kessler, a lawyer and physician who was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. We all know about third-party audit conflicts. Weve seen it play out in the financial world. You cant be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.
NEW RULES FOR IMPORTERS ONLY
The FDA is trying, so far without success, to wrest back control of food inspection from the industry. In 2008, the agency estimated that it would need another $3 billion quadrupling its $1 billion annual budget for food safety to conduct inspections on imported and domestic food, the FDAs former food safety chief David Acheson says.
Instead, the food industry lobbied for, and won, enactment of a law in January 2011 that expanded the role of auditors and foreign governments in vetting producers and distributors of food bound for the U.S.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, will allow the FDA to certify private companies to audit producers of imported food on its behalf.
The law mandates that these auditors submit their reports to the agency. These rules dont apply to domestic inspection companies, which still wont be approved by the FDA and dont report their findings.
Under the 2011 law, the FDA will require high-risk producers to be inspected every five years starting in 2016, according to the agencys website.
A SUCCESS STORY
Companies can take steps to prevent foodborne infections although those measures cost money that producers and retailers arent always willing to spend. One company that changed its ways is Earthbound Farm, which sells bagged lettuce and spinach. The company put in a new testing system after tragedy struck.
In 2006, Kathleen Chrismer and Matthew Tateishi had driven with their daughter Rylee Gustafson to celebrate her ninth birthday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California when she got diarrhea that soon turned to gushing red blood. They rushed her to San Francisco, where doctors put her in intensive care at the University of Californias Childrens Hospital.
A few days later, her kidneys and pancreas failed.
I remember not being able to hear or see, says Rylee, whos now 15 and lives in Henderson, Nev.
Three weeks after that, the CDC traced the E. coli that had sickened Rylee and 204 others to spinach packed at Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, California. The company, which had been getting high marks from third-party auditors NSF Cook & Thurber and PrimusLabs, announced a recall on Sept. 15, 2006.
Charlie Sweat, Earthbounds CEO, says that when he learned the outbreak had killed three people, including 2-year-old Kyle Allgood of Chubbuck, he fell to his knees and thought he may have to shut down his company.
If we couldnt reduce the risk, we said wed walk away, Sweat says.
Sweat started doing microbial tests at regular intervals on both incoming lettuce shipments from growers and on packed salads before they were sold to retailers. He now says he wont allow the shipments to move until test results show theyre free of pathogens. He hasnt had an outbreak or recall since starting this process in October 2006.
Earthbounds operations chief Will Daniels says the testing adds 3 cents to the cost of a bag of lettuce. Thats too much for many growers, says Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Wash., which does testing for the FDA. He designed Earthbounds testing.
Its retailers and food service companies who have to say, Here are three pennies for safety, says Samadpour, the lab owner who does testing for the FDA. Only a few do it. The rest pressure growers to cut costs, and safety is the first victim.