Surprise: Peanut Plant's Private Food Inspector Rated Safety 'Superior'

Ah, the joys of the Randian free market! Go through the motions, use someone who doesn't know what they're doing, and make sure the plant has plenty o

Ah, the joys of the Randian free market! Go through the motions, use someone who doesn't know what they're doing, and make sure the plant has plenty of notice for the inspection. Why, it's a veritable recipe for disaster:

When food industry giants like Kellogg want to ensure that American consumers are being protected from contaminated products, they rely on private inspectors like Eugene A. Hatfield. So last spring Mr. Hatfield headed to the Peanut Corporation of America plant in southwest Georgia to make sure its chopped nuts, paste and peanut butter were safe to use in everything from granola bars to ice cream.

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

Mr. 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 Mr. Hatfield was inspecting the plant on behalf of Kellogg and other food companies, the Peanut Corporation was paying him for his efforts.

“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.

Federal investigators later discovered that the dilapidated plant was ravaged by salmonella and had been shipping tainted peanuts and paste for at least nine months. But they were too late to prevent what has become one of the nation’s worst known outbreaks of food-borne disease in recent years, in which nine are believed to have died and an estimated 22,500 were sickened.

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