Some Pacific Northwest tree fruit packers are complying with as many as 11 food safety programs, a recent survey by the Northwest Horticultural Council shows, and a produce industry spokesperson says the requirements may be motivated more by profit for the certifiers than for genuine food-safety concerns. In addition to being audited for Primus Labs, HACCP, SQF, USDA-GHP, and GlobalGAP, a packer may undergo audits specifically for retail customers such as Tesco, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, or Supervalu.
Debbie Carter, technical issues manager at the Hort Council, said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the various audits are not harmonized. She was part of a delegation from the Northwest that visited the Food Marketing Institute this summer to discuss the problem. Other delegation members were Eric Strutzel and Eva Lauve, who are board members of the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee, and Chris Schlect of the Hort Council.
The FMI owns SQF (Safe Quality Food), a food safety program that was developed in Australia. Although there are concerns about food safety audits in general, Carter said they are focusing first on SQF because it recently made some changes to the program that don’t make sense for tree fruits.
The FMI is a retailer-driven organization, and Carter said retailers might not be aware that what they’re requiring is not realistic for tree fruit producers.
When the SQF was introduced to the Pacific Northwest produce industry in 1999, it allowed each fruit packer to look internally at their own processes and make changes based on how they could make their processes better, Carter said. Each packer operates differently, and the audit was specific to each packing house. Over the years, however, SQF has been moving towards a standardized audit for all types of produce. Some requirements relate to produce such as leafy greens or tomatoes that are more prone to food safety problems than tree fruits, but if the tree fruit producers don’t address them, they’re out of compliance.
Carter said she has been unable to find any instance of a food safety problem associated with whole fresh apples, pears, or cherries. "We would very much like to talk about how we’re different, and why you can’t necessarily have a cookie-cutter approach to these programs," she said.
Some requirements are moving beyond the realm of food safety and are impinging on corporate standards, she said. "It’s moving from food safety into food quality."
Packers say they feel obligated to fulfill all the audit requirements in order to keep their customers, but some just go too far. For example, one U.K. retailer’s program restricted the number of hours a packing house’s parking lot lights could be on at night because of the risk of disturbing birds.
Tower of Babel
Robert Guenther, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said having mandatory federal food safety standards in place might eliminate the need for U.S. fruit producers to be audited or certified under multiple private programs.
If mandatory federal guidelines were put in place, they could serve as the gold standard. A comprehensive and unified program based on those guidelines would reduce the amount of different audits required by third parties and private-sector companies, Guenther suggested.
It’s certain that some audits are based on profits for the certifying companies rather than on food safety, he said.
"’The Tower of Babel is reaching breaking point,’ is the quote I use," he said during the Pear Bureau Northwest’s annual meeting earlier this year. "It’s really what we call audit fatigue that’s going on in the industry right now. We believe now is the time to drive industrywide action to confront this crisis. Everyone’s feeling the pain of the cost and the efforts of having to comply with all these different standards."
Lacking a uniform standard, it’s likely that third-party auditing programs will continue to proliferate because they’re selling a service to the industry that the industry needs in order to satisfy customers’ demands, Guenther said. Retailers and produce buyers want their suppliers to be certified in order to reduce their liability in the event of a food-safety problem.
"Nothing’s going to solve all these problems, but we believe that federal government guidelines that would apply across the board and focus in on commodities at risk could potentially be a solution to the proliferation of private sector audits," he said.
Ron Gonsalvez, general manager of the fruit packing company Blue Bird, Inc. of Peshastin, Washington, said audit fatigue is a serious problem. "I can’t express enough that we need to go somewhere with standardizing auditing practices," he said. "We’re wasting time and not meeting their objectives ultimately."