I listened to the Oct. 19 FDA press teleconference on the investigation of the listeria outbreak linked cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado, and one theme was the question whether the cantaloupe operation was an anomaly or represented a troubling norm.

Sherri McGarry, Senior Advisor, FDA CORE Network, Office of Foods, said “we have no reason to believe at this time that these practices are indicative of the industry.”

Not exactly an unequivocal declaration, but close enough.

McGarry said the “take-away message” for industry is that it is important for firms to employ good agricultural practices in the fields and good handling and manufacturing practices in the packing facilities. She said equipment should be designed to be easy to clean and sanitized and cleaning procedures should be established and verified.

I see that the rest of the cantaloupe industry reinforced the FDA assertion that Jensen Farms was the exception rather than the rule. The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board issued a news release that said FDA confirmed “that the outbreak of listeria associated with Colorado-grown cantaloupes is the result of one grower-shipper not following well-established food safety practices that have been in place throughout the melon industry for many years.”

Likewise, Western Growers issued a news release that said “the FDA emphasized the critical importance of preventive controls and stated the practices and conditions observed in this single facility are not indicative of the industry at large.”

The 20-minute question and answer session between FDA staff and the media included some questions about the case that could not be answered because the investigation by FDA is ongoing.

One media member asked what kind of inspections were done on this facility and the follow up; who is responsible to insure that their farm and packing facility are under regulation?

Roberta Wagner of the FDA said that producers and their packing facilities do come under the purview of FDA. The packing facility was registered under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 in July 2010. With the Food Safety Modernization Act, any registered facility will be inspected under a mandate that dictates inspection frequency every five to seven years. However, FDA had never previously inspected this facility.

Perhaps the most troubling question for the industry - and one that could undo the contention that the Jensen case was an outlier - related to third party inspections. Noting that the Food Safety Modernization Act moves toward more reliance on third party auditors, a USA Today reporter said that she had actually had a copy of the third party inspection done at the Jensen Farm facility in August. She marveled that the third party inspection results were glowing. “All the points you make in your letter about problems going on they got total compliance on, including well cleaned areas, no standing water, everything is easy to clean. So how is that going to work if you know in these audits people get full compliance and yet those are the exact same problems you are pointing out in your letter?”

That friends, is a difficult question. If a third party audit found Jensen Farms and its packing facility to be top shelf, how does that fit with the findings of the FDA investigation? In my mind, a consumer reading this may wonder if any third party audit - no matter how many are administered in any given year - has any value at all.

“Your point about the reliability of private third party audits is a valid point,” replied Mike Taylor , deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. While some of those audits are high quality and reliable, Taylor said some are not.

Under the new food safety law, Taylor said FDA is tasked with establishing a program of accrediting the auditors to standards the FDA sets to insure the quality and objectivity of the audits. Taylor said the agency also wants the results of the audits accessible to FDA,so the agency can use the results in its decision making, to analyze the results to show the audits are in fact effective and reliable.

“The third party certification is building on and substantially enhancing (the) current private sector audit system and looking to leverage those resources where it can be done in a way that is effective and reliable for public assurances,” Taylor said.

That’s a mouthful of bureaucratic ambition, and one hopes it will someday come to pass. But considering the Jensen case and others, buyers and suppliers should consider the adequacy of third party audits as suspect.

Requiring unannounced third party food safety audits of produce operators would be a reasonable step in restoring public confidence in the industry’s oversight.