The Food and Drug Administration is congratulating itself for helping to bring criminal charges against two brothers who operated a Colorado cantaloupe farm whose contaminated produce killed 33 people, caused one woman to miscarry and sickened as many as 147 other people.
And we should applaud government's effort to press a case against Jensen Farms (now in bankruptcy) and its owners, Eric and Ryan Jensen. They face misdemeanor charges, which carry as much as a year in prison and fines up to $250,000 for each of the six counts.
What the charges do nothing to address is the half-baked state of food inspections in the U.S. It's worth recounting just how the toxic melons -- which carried the deadly pathogen listeria -- got into the food system in the first place, as reported by Bloomberg Markets magazine last October:
On July 25, 2011, Santa Maria, California-based Primus Group Inc. -- whose PrimusLabs unit bills itself as the largest produce safety company in the Western Hemisphere -- sent a subcontractor to Jensen Farms. The property, 181 miles (291 kilometers) southeast of Denver, was then a mosaic of fields where trucks churned up dust clouds on dirt roads and cantaloupes grew beneath power lines.
The subcontractor, Bio Food Safety Inc. of Rio Hondo, Texas, was represented by James Dilorio, who spent four hours on site. Using a checklist, he documented practices such as the cleaning of cantaloupes, washing of employees’ hands and labeling of detergents, according to his report.
Dilorio scored Jensen 96 out of 100.
“Yes, all food contact surfaces are clean,” his report says. “Yes, all products and food contact packaging were within acceptable tolerances for spoilage or adulteration.”
Dilorio was, at the time, a 26-year-old with little experience in food inspections. He seems to have failed to notice that Jensen was using a machine that was designed to process potatoes, not melons, and wasn't easy to clean and disinfect properly. More important, the inspector overlooked the absence of an antimicrobial sprayer or bath to wash the melons, something he might have spotted if were more experienced and knew that melons can carry potentially lethal bacteria.
Dilorio worked for a company that provides so-called third-party inspections, which have filled the yawning oversight gap created by an FDA that constantly is asked to do more without adequate funding.
The FDA and contract inspectors say that their record is good and that the professionals who do the examinations are competent, qualified and impartial. But all it takes is a quick check of data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to grasp the deficiencies of the U.S. food-inspection regimen: Some 48 million Americans succumb to food-poisoning each year, with costs estimated at $75 billion to $150 billion in medical expenses and lost time from work.
The nub of the problem is that the third-party inspection system can be improved, but it can never be fixed as long as the companies receiving the inspections are the same ones paying the tab. The conflict can't be unraveled.
Far better is an adequately funded FDA, which now inspects a minuscule percentage of all food. As long as our government -- and perhaps the public -- is content with a porous safety net, what we have now will be as good as we'll get.
(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)