A group of around 50 produce industry leaders are working on an effort to harmonize the various food-safety standards and audits that exist today and develop a common standard for good agricultural practices that everyone can agree to.

“The reason we’re doing all this is because there are so many programs and different standards that are out there,” said Dr. David Gombas, project coordinator.

For suppliers, meeting the requirements of all the various programs is expensive and time consuming, he said. Some requirements are redundant, and some are conflicting. Suppliers doubt that the multiple standards they have to meet are improving food safety. In fact, they say they’re taking resources away from their food safety ­programs.

Gombas, who is vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, said that about 90 percent of the requirements in all the programs are the same. The intent is for everyone to be able to use one standard audit.

“We would use the existing standards as templates for the standard we want to develop, and pull all the features into one audit,” he said.

It will focus on food safety and avoid areas such as ­sustainability or worker rights.

Obstacles

Gombas said the group has many obstacles to overcome. “We recognize it’s going to be a very difficult endeavor. We have, over the years, dug ourselves into an audit trench. We’ve created an entire economy around doing audits, with all the different audit companies and all the different standards. Everybody has ownership over all the things that are there today, and it’s going to be difficult for folks to say, ‘We’re going to drop what we’ve been doing and do something else.’”

The Steering Committee, chaired by Brian Kocher of Chiquita Fresh North America, held its first meeting in September. Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, is a member.

“The hope is at the end of the day we will have a scientifically based standard for fresh produce that can be accepted by retail chains that focuses on the needs of the North American production unit,” Schlect said.

The standard should differentiate between low-risk crops, such as tree fruits, and those with higher food-safety risks, such as leafy greens and melons, which are grown on the ground, he said.

Schlect envisions that producers would still be certified by GlobalGAP, or SQF, or another company, but if the audits were based on the same standards, they should be acceptable to any buyer. It is hoped that retailers would no longer feel the need to set their own standards. “You’re still going to need independent third-party auditors, but hopefully, they’re not going to be coming one week after another. It would be one auditor.”

A technical working group has been set up under the leadership of Suresh Decosta of McDonald’s Corporation and Gombas to examine the similarities and differences in existing standards to find areas of alignment. Deborah Carter, technical issues manager at the Northwest Horticultural Council, is a member of the group. Ultimately, the group will develop a harmonized standard that will go back to the steering committee for review.

The committee hopes to have a harmonization plan in place within a year. Gombas said the process would be open and transparent. “Anyone who would like to come to the table is invited to be there.”