(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 12) The practices of third-party auditors came under intense fire from House Democrats in the wake of a House Energy and Commerce Committee report on the listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado.

The Jan. 10 bipartisan report, at , is based on documents from and interviews with food safety officials with the Food and Drug Administration, Jensen Farms, Frontera Produce, Primus Labs and Bio Food Safety, according to a news release from the committee.

Food safety officials who investigated the outbreak faulted ill-suited processing equipment and the use of non-chlorinated water as wash water, according to the report.
Both of those changes were implemented at Jensen Farms in 2011.

According to the report, third-party auditors did not audit Jensen Farms to FDA guidance but only to what the law required.

Robert Stovicek, president of Primus Labs, was quoted in the report saying that Primus Labs would be a “rogue element if they tried to pick winners and losers” by holding industry to higher standards. Stovicek told investigators that Primus Labs did not have the
“expertise to determine which best practices should be pushed by the industry.”

Jerry Walzel, president of Texas-based Bio Food Safety, told the report’s authors that  “guidelines are opinions ... regulations are law.”

“We are not supposed to be opinionated on this, we are supposed to go by FDA’s regulations. ... FDA should have mandated that you cannot sell cantaloupes that have not been sanitized,” Walzel was quoted in the report.

A letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg from House Democrats, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., and John Dingell, D-Mich., urged the FDA to review what lawmakers called “significant problems with the third-party inspection system.”

“The final Primus Labs audit certificate for Jensen Farms reported the 96% score, but failed to mention any of the particular deficiencies,” the lawmakers wrote.

Beside concerns about failure to audit for compliance with FDA guidance, House Democrats also noted that third-party auditors do not report their findings to FDA or state agencies, concerns about advance notice of third-party audits and potential conflict of interests in auditor relationships.

Calling weaknesses in third party audits a significant gap in the foods safety system, the House Democrats told Hamburg they believe reforms in third party audits are essential.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said what while there is a lot of focus on third-party audits, she said FDA was clear in the report about what caused the outbreak.

“It was machinery, sanitation and lack of chlorine in the wash water,” she said.

Means said third-party audits are only piece in the food safety system, not the “end-all” solution.

“The produce industry will look carefully at the questions raised in the report as we continue to work to prevent any contamination of our products,” Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in an e-mail.

According to the committee's report, Frontera Produce (which marketed the melons) said many major retailers — in response to the outbreak — have put in place end-product testing of cantaloupe to detect listeria, salmonella and other pathogens. Retailers and industry groups are studying the possibility of additional checks at other critical points in the supply chain, according to the report.

“Primus Labs noted, and FDA confirmed, that buyers will immediately start requiring auditors to take environmental swabs while auditing food facilities,” according to the report.