Georgia is making the shift after other states began focusing their inspectors’ work based on the likelihood that food products could be contaminated with pathogens. While the decision has been praised by consumer safety advocates, it also underlines a fundamental problem: Overworked state food inspectors could not keep pace with the old goal — one routine inspection every six months.
"We feel like it’s really important because ... what you do is put your resources toward where your greatest exposure is, and I think it helps you do a better job," Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said.
An audit released this summer found that as of May 2011, the state Department of Agriculture had conducted one inspection every six months for 51 percent of the state’s roughly 740 licensed food processing facilities. The rest had been inspected within the past year or longer. That audit caught Black’s department in the middle of a transition, a fact that the auditors acknowledged. Earlier that year, Black’s department began discussing how it could implement a model that focused inspections based on risk.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already adopted risk-based inspections as part of its recommended standards, and many states have made the transition.
"The idea is you want to focus your resources on the person preparing the sushi, not the one who has the processed food in a package," said Doug Farquhar, the program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Georgia is kind of bringing itself up to speed."
Food safety officials across the country constantly contend with resource issues. The number of inspectors examining food manufacturers has grown from three to seven staffers since a 2009 salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut processing plant killed nine people. Black said he is using federal grant money to employ a compliance officer and intends to shield the food safety inspectors from statewide budget cuts required by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Even so, it remains unclear whether seven inspectors will be enough to fully staff the program.
In the past, inspectors would attempt to review a massive peanut processing plant, for example, in a half day or even less, said Michael Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. Targeted inspections could help make better use of an inspector’s time.
"And the question is, is it better to do a thorough audit and maybe do it once a year than to do these cursory audits just to meet the goal of doing it twice a year?" said Doyle, who added that he prefers a more intense audit.
As state food inspectors review facilities, they are now gathering information used to gauge a manufacturer’s risk. That process should be finished within a year, said Oscar Garrison, director of the food safety division with the state Department of Agriculture.
While department officials are still tweaking guidelines, the number of inspections could vary widely. Garrison estimated that a high-risk producer could get a quarterly inspection, while very small establishments with clean records could go two years without seeing an inspector.
To define a plant’s risk, state officials examine several variables. Some products are inherently less prone to contamination than others. For example, pre-washed, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables are more likely to be contaminated than baked crackers. The risk of a major outbreak for a firm that sells its products locally is less than for a large operation that ships food across the country.
Food products going to vulnerable populations, such as baby formula for infants or food destined for the elderly in nursing homes, will generally get more scrutiny than products destined for the general population, Garrison said.
How the food is produced also factors into the risk assessment. Firms that have robust food safety plans, aggressively test their food ingredients and products and monitor their suppliers are viewed as less prone to food outbreaks than manufacturers who are more lax.
Department officials are weighing those variables as they inspect plants. For example, an inspector noted in a recent review that a firm making ready-to-eat deli-cooked vegetables and casseroles should be considered high-risk since consumers would only warm, not thoroughly cook, the final product.
Garrison said the risk profiles developed by his department are not set in stone. A manufacturer rated as low-risk could find itself under stepped-up scrutiny if inspectors cite if for violations or if testing reveals contamination.