Idiot Inspector for Idiot Corporation?

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TheDay.com – Food safety problems slip by auditors

You might remember my rants about the Idiot Corp… I mean Peanut Corporation of America. Just saw now in the news that they had an “inspection” that, upon closer inspection, is either dishonest or incompetent. My wife and I often have philosophical discussions about bad things happening and thinking through the alternatives:

  1. People are intentionally doing something wrong
  2. People are dumb

You can have this same discussion about so many topics — financial meltdown — corrupt or dumb? I often reach the conclusion that I'd feel better if people are corrupt and screwing you, because that's better than people being dumb. At least smart people have a chance of being ethical…. “you can't fix stupid” as a friend of mine says.

So what happened in this peanut case? Remember, this led to nine deaths and many cases of illness. The inspector's name is Eugene A. Hatfield.

The peanut company, though, knew in advance that Hatfield was coming. He had less than a day to check the entire plant, which processed several million pounds of peanuts a month.

Planned inspections are very problematic. In manufacturing, any time a vice president or executive comes to visit a plant, it's often highly choreographed and scripted. They don't see the reality of the real “gemba.” Things get cleaned up, problems get hidden. The same can be true with hospital accreditation or certification inspections. You know in advance that people are coming, so problems get hidden. Any of these outside visits really need to be unplanned to be effective, I believe. Planned visits run the risk of everyone going through the motions, rather than really meeting goals for improved safety and quality.

Hatfield, 66, an expert in fresh produce, was not aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella poisoning – which he was not required to test for anyway. And while Hatfield was inspecting the plant to reassure Kellogg and other food companies of its suitability as a supplier, the Peanut Corp. was paying him for his efforts.

So we have an inspector who didn't have enough time and probably wasn't trained well enough for his job. So he's probably not an idiot. I'll be fair to him, other than my headline. He's just a bit player in the overall system. Why wasn't he required to check for salmonella?

There's a glaring conflict of interest in Peanut Corp paying for the inspector. Sort of like the conflict of interest in home appraisals. When we bought out first house, in Phoenix in 2002, the market was booming. I questioned why the appraiser was basically paid by the parties involved in the sale. That's not an independent opinion. That's bound to be skewed…. and people might get screwed.

”The overall food safety level of this facility was considered to be: SUPERIOR,” he concluded in his March 27, 2008, report for his employer, the American Institute of Baking, which performs audits for major food companies. A copy of the audit was obtained by The New York Times.

SUPERIOR?? Oh come on.

I'm not one to rush to the conclusion that the government needs to protect us, but I think it's time for the FDA to step up their inspections. I'm a huge fan of the free market, but it's clear the free market isn't protecting our food supply.

”The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.

Another way the system is broken can be tied back to Dr. Deming's teachings:

The rigor of audits varies widely and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the Food and Drug Administration spends to inspect a plant.

Do not choose a supplier based on price alone! Sigh, people still don't listen to Dr. Deming.

Costco, thankfully, is stepping up as a strong player in the free market, banning the use of the audit company that Hatfield worked for:

The retail giant Costco, which had already limited the institute's audits to bakery vendors, has now told suppliers to stop using the group altogether.

Look at this other example, chock full of dysfunction:

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.”

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.

Quantity over quality. Don't shut the line down. The only thing that matters is productivity? That's not uncommon thinking, sadly. Again, people still haven't learned about quality and Dr. Deming's teachings.

Rather than blaming the inspector, we need a better system.


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent book is the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. His latest book has been released as an "in-progress" book, titled Measures of Success.

2 Comments
  1. […] Graban on March 23, 2009 · 2 comments Following up on these two earlier posts (here and here)… I’ll quit calling them the “Idiot Corporation of America” since the […]

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