Nebraska Beef has disputed its culpability in the outbreak, which sickened at least 17 people. A company spokesman said Thursday that the problems identified in the audit had been corrected but could not provide documents to verify that claim.
Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, said, “The only thing that matters is productivity.” He added that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”
Dr. LaBudde said a sausage plant hired him five years ago to determine the species of bacillus plaguing its meat. But the owner then refused to complete the testing. “I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it,” he said, declining to name the company.
There are more than 200 companies and numerous independent operators in private food inspection. Few have grown faster than the American Institute of Baking. In addition to the peanut factories, the organization’s 120 auditors handle clients who process meat, seafood, vegetables, spices, oils and dairy products.
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The baking institute also sells educational services to food industry personnel; the Peanut Corporation of America said some of its employees attended the organization’s food safety training classes. Audits provide nearly half the income for the organization, according to tax filings and the organization’s Web site.
Mr. Munyon, the organization’s president, said its auditors were drawn from industry experts with vast experience in food safety. “AIB emphasizes the educational value of its inspection procedure to the management and employees of the facilities it provides services to,” he said.
Mr. Munyon acknowledged that auditors were allowed to solicit contracts from plants that they then audited, but said this posed no ethical issues because the auditors were on salary, not paid by commission. Mr. Hatfield first audited the Peanut Corporation plant in Georgia in 2007 after contacting the plant’s managers to solicit their business.
The American Institute of Baking’s dual role as an educator and inspector troubles some in the food industry, as does its expansion beyond baking audits. Before the salmonella outbreak, Costco had rebuffed repeated proposals by the organization to inspect all its food suppliers.
“The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top food safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”
Costco, Kraft Foods and Darden Restaurants are among a group of food manufacturers and other companies that use detailed plans to prevent food safety hazards. They also supplement third-party audits with their own inspections and testing of ingredients and plant surfaces for microbes.
The American Institute of Baking was not alone in missing the trouble at the Peanut Corporation plant in Blakely, Ga. State inspectors also found only minor problems, while a federal team last month uncovered a number of alarming signs, as well as testing records from the company itself that showed salmonella in its products as far back as June 2007. Federal health officials say there are now 677 officially reported cases of salmonella poisoning in the outbreak, which reflects only about 3 percent of the total number of people sickened.
But the baking institute’s private audit of the peanut plant had particular heft in assuring food makers that the processed peanuts were safe. Plant workers, in interviews with The Times, also cited the audits’ findings when asked why they did not pursue their own concerns about the plant.
Another audit of the peanut plant, by the Michigan-based NSF Cook & Thurber, raises further questions about the usefulness of private audits. That audit found nearly two dozen problems that it characterized as “minor,” but it nonetheless gave the peanut plant an overall score of 91 out of 100.
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NSF officials said that for their audits, this was a low score. But the company that paid for the audit, the insurance giant American International Group, then sold the peanut company insurance to cover the costs of recalling products, according to lawyers for the Peanut Corporation.
Mr. Hatfield, who audited the peanut plant for the American Institute of Baking, referred questions to the organization, which said he “is degreed in biology” and “trained to do the job.” In auditing the Blakely plant last March, Mr. Hatfield became concerned about his ability to check the plant thoroughly and asked for more than the one day allotted, according to people familiar with the audit. The Peanut Corporation agreed to pay for the additional time, but only in future audits, according to those people.
Mr. Hatfield checked to see that the plant had a system in place to test its products for contamination, but the audit indicated that he did not ask to see any test results for salmonella and therefore did not know that the plant had found the bacteria.
“I never thought that this bacteria would survive in the peanut butter type environment,” Mr. Hatfield wrote to a food safety expert on Jan. 20, after the deadly salmonella outbreak was made public, according to a copy of his e-mail message. “What the heck is going on??”