2012-10-11 "Millions sickened as food certified safe" by Stephanie Armour, John Lippert and Michael Smith from "San Francisco Chronicle"
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 and feeling pain throughout his body.
On Sept. 1, 2011, Beach got out of bed in the middle of the night, dressed 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.
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, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue.
Beach was one of 33 people killed by Listeria that was later traced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state officials to contaminated cantaloupes from one Colorado farm. It was the deadliest outbreak of food borne disease in the country in almost 100 years.
"He died in terror and pain," said his daughter Debbie Frederick.
For-profit inspections -
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 Walmart and Wegmans Food Markets Inc. 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 FDA's role in ensuring that what Americans eat is safe. The agency can't 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 aren't 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 Inc., Kraft Foods Inc. and Wal-Mart.
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 food borne 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.
Cloaked in secrecy -
What for-hire auditors do is cloaked in secrecy; they don't have to make their findings public. Bloomberg Markets 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 we're seeing are endless," said 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, said Americans are at risk whenever they go to a supermarket.
"You need to be in a culture that takes food safety seriously," Powell said. "Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless."