Immigration reform came up during the President Obama's State of the Union message last night, but there was no great sense that this mere mention will lead to action. Here is the link to the full text of the address:

The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.

That hardly seems promising, does it? A great link to the meat of the SOTU, such as it is, can be found at The Washington Post Wonkblog

USA Today has just published an editorial about food safety audits, and the "opposing view" was offered by PMA's Bob Whitaker.

Here is an excerpt from the USA Today edit:

The first line of defense remains independent auditors hired by food producers to monitor their performance, much as companies hire outside auditors to certify their financial statements. But just six days before the Colorado outbreak, Jensen's auditor gave the company stellar ratings.

The system has an inherent conflict of interest: While retailers generally require audits before buying from a supplier, the suppliers often hire and pay the auditors who evaluate them. It's like authors hiring their own book reviewers.

Later, the edit concludes:

If retailers paid for audits, as a few do, there'd be more incentive for impartial audits. Retailers could also demand that auditors be assigned randomly to jobs from a pool. That, too, would reduce the conflicts.

Outbreaks of food-borne illness have prompted change in the past, but only when industries have stepped up to take responsibility. After contaminated spinach sickened scores of people in 2006, producers agreed to make leafy greens less vulnerable to bacteria. In 2004, after a salmonella outbreak in almonds, California growers researched a pasteurization process to make their products safer.

As government shrinks, more of the nation's food supply will depend on private audits. They won't provide much comfort as long as auditors are evaluating the folks who pay their bill.

The counterpoint from Whitaker

While the industry is constantly in search of new ideas to enhance the safety of our products, the concept of creating a system led by industry to randomly choose third-party auditors is flawed.

If objectivity is the concern, consider that audits are only one tool in a comprehensive food safety program. It is already standard industry practice to rotate auditors to avoid potential familiarity issues. In some cases, it's the buyer who actually chooses a grower's auditing firm.

The concerns about objectivity also assume that the only goal of the grower paying for the audit is to achieve a passing grade. Nothing could be further from the truth. Audits, like other current safeguards, are one tool among many used to ensure the safety of our fresh produce. Further, audit results are routinely used to improve food safety performance.

TK: Interesting idea about randomly selecting auditors, but I think the constraints of geography alone would be a significant barrier. Whitaker's "nothing could be further from the truth" comment may do little to assure the skeptical public about what is perceived to be a "cozy" relationship between the third party auditor and the firm being audited.

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