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 things as diverse as granola bars and 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 - which he was not required to test for anyway. And while Mr. Hatfield was inspecting the plant to reassure Kellogg and other food companies of its suitability as a supplier, the Peanut Corporation was paying 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.
With government inspectors overwhelmed by the task of guarding the nation's food supply, the job of monitoring food plants has in large part fallen to an army of private auditors like Mr. Hatfield. And the problems go well beyond peanuts.
An examination of the largest food poisoning outbreaks in recent years - in products as varied as spinach, pet food, and a children's snack, Veggie Booty - show that auditors failed to detect problems at plants whose contaminated products later sickened consumers.
In one case involving hamburgers fed to schoolchildren, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California passed 17 separate audits in 2007, records show. Then an undercover video made that year showed the plant's workers using forklifts to force sickly cows into the slaughterhouse, which prompted a recall of 143 million pounds of beef in February 2008.
"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.
Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. 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.
Typically, the private auditors inspect only manufacturing plants, not the suppliers that feed ingredients to those facilities. Nor do they commonly test the actual food products for pathogens, even though gleaming production lines can turn out poisoned fare.
As in the Georgia peanut case, auditors are also usually paid by the food plants they inspect, which some experts said could deter them from cracking down. Yet food companies often point to an auditor's certificate as a seal of approval.
The baking institute, which is based in Manhattan, Kan., and is also known as AIB International, says it inspected more than 10,000 food production sites in 80 countries last year. James R. Munyon, its president and chief executive, said his group's inspections were reliable and tough, no matter who pays for them, but he declined to elaborate on specific audits.
Kellogg officials declined to be interviewed for this article. The company has said it is reviewing its use of private audits, including those by the American Institute of Baking. Kellogg said it required the Peanut Corporation to provide it with annual audits of the Georgia facility. Kellogg has recalled more than a dozen products, including Keebler crackers and Famous Amos cookies.
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.
Both the food industry and federal officials say they are aware of the problems with third-party audits. Nonetheless, the F.D.A. has proposed expanding the role of private auditors to inspect the more than 200,000 foreign facilities that ship food to the United States. The agency has proposed a voluntary certification program that would toughen audit standards and alert federal authorities of problems - an idea that has met stiff resistance from the food industry.
Food safety advocates say that audits can play a useful role in improving sanitation and catching problems. But in case after case, the audits have failed to prevent major outbreaks.
In 2007, Keystone Foods, the Pennsylvania plant that makes Veggie Booty, received an "excellent" rating from the American Institute of Baking. But the audit did not extend to ingredient suppliers, including a New Jersey company whose imported spices from China were tainted with salmonella.
As many as 2,000 people in 19 states were sickened, according to federal estimates. The incident prompted the New York company that sells the snack, Robert's American Gourmet, to add its own inspections and regularly test ingredients for contamination.
Even when audits do turn up problems, it is up to the discretion of food companies to fix them.
After Nebraska Beef was linked to an E. coli outbreak in 2006, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture found that the company had not carried out the recommendations of auditors who had identified numerous problems at the plant in the preceding months.
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.
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.
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??"