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The multiplicity of food safety audits that fresh produce shippers face is reaching a crisis point, says Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association.
United Fresh sponsored the Global Conference on Produce Safety Standards in Las Vegas in April. The conference brought together retailers, foodservice operators, produce suppliers, government officials, and certifiers to talk about the benefits of harmonizing standards.

Twenty years ago, very few companies were conducting food safety audits, Gombas said, and the produce industry was recommending that buyers verify that their suppliers were using safe practices.

Since then, the number of standards that suppliers are being asked to comply with has grown exponentially. This has led to multiple, redundant, and conflicting audits on suppliers, along with increased costs, the association points out.

Gombas said the audit programs have become so detailed and so particular that the primary focus is on passing the audit, which is taking time and resources away from food safety. Some producers have had to hire a full-time person just to escort the auditors around.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, based in Yakima, Washington, said people supplying apples to the public have a duty to do every reasonable thing to make sure they are safe for consumers, but they want standardization between certifiers. It’s not unusual for packers to have to go through five to ten audits a year.

"It’s idiotic having five to ten different tests. What are we trying to solve here? There isn’t a rash of outbreaks associated with our industry. In fact, there’s none."

Auditors

Schlect said just sending out an employee with a clipboard and checklist to a packing plant does not mean food safety has been improved. In talks with certification program staff, Schlect learned that there were few auditors who have expertise in food safety and a scientific background.

Eric Strutzel with Blue Star Growers, Inc., Cashmere, Washington, said that within the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry there’s recognition that food safety is very important, even though apples are considered a low-risk commodity.

"There’s a strong commitment in this region to food safety and trying to learn and be as effective as we can," he said.

However, producers would like to see a greater effort to standardize the audits, he said. Retailers often have their own food safety requirements and audits, and Strutzel said he did not believe that food safety should be a competitive factor between retailers.

"I think we should be able to come up with a standard that says, ‘This is what we need to do to produce as safe a product as we can,’ and it should not be unique from customer A to customer B."

Gombas said that retailers are also starting to be concerned about the current system. Initially, many retailers would send out their own audit teams to check a supplier’s produce. Over time, the system shifted to where the retailers required a third-party audit at the supplier’s expense.

"I have a suspicion that if the retailers were paying for the audits, we would have fewer audits," he said.

Now, however, they’re finding out that there is a cost involved.

"Up until recently, there was no cost to the retailer to require everything or anything, so the conflicting standards and the audit burden really wasn’t their burden," he said. "That’s starting to change. The burden is starting to get reflected in product prices and product availability. As a result of that, retailers are starting to see there’s a consequence and it could hurt them."

Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, which ships more than 20 million boxes of tree fruits annually, said the company has not calculated how much auditing adds to the cost of producing fruit on a per-box basis.

"We’re all too busy auditing to do that," he said. "And it’s going to get more complex, not easier. If we had standardization, it would allow us to spend more time on the fruit and doing the job right.

"Today, we have just way too many people wanting to audit, and I hear this from numerous shippers in the produce industry—not just the state of Washington. It’s not only expensive, but it’s time consuming, and it’s logistically a nightmare.

"I think that standardization has got to happen and it’s got to be something that’s achievable agriculturally," he added. "I think everybody wants the same thing in the end—we want a safe, legal food system in America."

Pepperl said the standards must be accepted globally, otherwise that limits where the products can be sold, which is good neither for producers nor consumers.

Resistance

But those who are in the business of certifying have an interest in maintaining their programs. "The trouble is, there’s money in having those programs and money in auditing," Schlect observed. "They don’t just want to go away and say, ‘We’ll have GlobalGAP do this.’"

Gombas said he expects there will be resistance from certifiers to standardization because it’s in their interest to have distinguishing features that make their program different from others. "That’s how we got into the problem in the first place," he said. "But nothing we’re talking about would put any company out of business."

As a first step in what could be a lengthy process towards standardization, United Fresh planned to benchmark the various programs and make side-by-side comparisons for buyers and producers so they can make informed choices.

However, it’s possible the government might trump everything by having the U.S. Food and Drug Administration be responsible for food safety audits, Schlect said.

Congress is considering food safety reforms following a number of instances of contaminated foods, including spinach, peanuts, and pistachios. Contamination of the nuts occurred in large processing plants.

Gombas said United Fresh is encouraging congressional delegates to require the FDA to set food safety standards and preclude any additional standards that people might want to impose.

Small farmers are concerned that reforms that Congress is considering might not be feasible for organic and small farmers. The Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin is calling on farmers and consumers to stand up for and protect organic and sustainable local farmers, which it says are part of the nation’s food safety solution, not part of the problem.

John Schultz, director of business operations with SQF (Safe Quality Food), said it would take government, industry, standards owners, and accreditation bodies all working together to come closer and closer over time to one standard. "I don’t think you can say, ‘Let’s snap our fingers and it’s going to happen.’"

That process is starting, however, and the benchmarking of SQF and GlobalGAP is under discussion, he said. "I think what we’re seeing is there’s a very positive energy between all of the bodies, and there’s debate taking place for the first time between all levels of the process."