The Denver Post makes an excellent point about food-safety auditors. They often do a cursory job when certifying food production facilities and routinely ignore risks that should set off alarm bells. The Post reports that a food safety audit of Jensen Farms gave its facility a “superior” rating the very same month that listeria-contaminated cantaloupes were processed for shipping. While farmers alone face an array of meteorological and financial risks, they share with food processors the risk of causing food-borne illness. I am a big fan of risk management for anyone in the food business. The existence of strict liability in civil suits for food-borne illness makes the stakes too high – farmers and food businesses can never be too careful.

Food growers and food processors always use an agricultural or production process to control the growth and spread of pathogens. Farmers can implement Good Agricultural Practices to limit pathogen contamination at the sites of production and distribution. Food processors can create modern HACCP plans to maintain the safety of the products they package and serve. Either of these critical risk management steps requires physical or procedural measures to be taken in the field or facility where food is grown or produced.

It seems, however, that physical remedies like these are not 100% effective. The pathogens tend to somehow always get through, either because they are hardy and invidious like E. coli 0157:H7, or because of the lousy inspections and audits like the ones in the Post article. Implement the prophylactic measures anyway, and follow them as vigorously as you can. Have a zero-defect mentality. You will otherwise never be able to sleep at night in case you caused a tragic illness. These measures are also the best defense against dangerous pathogens.

Supplement these measures with a legal risk management plan to mitigate the financial risks should your best intentions fall short. A carefully organized corporate structure can limit the ability of creditors and judgment holders to secure the personal property of the farmer or food business owner. Producers and food entrepreneurs can also pass liabilities up and down the supply chain by contractual agreement at points of sale. Whether you are the buyer or seller of a farm product or a processed food, alleviating yourself of the risk is something to consider in the bargaining process. Finally, third parties like insurance companies can be paid outright to assume the financial risks of food borne illness. These financial arrangements require thorough drafting and review to ensure that the amount of insurance purchased meets the needs of the business based on the amount of the typical money judgment in that jurisdiction.

The bugs will find a way to get through. Part of your strategy should be to use a good independent inspector or auditor, not the chumps in the Post. Assume the moral responsibility to put out a safe product, yet always be otherwise prepared in case those efforts fail.