Produce growers are getting closer to being able to follow one standard set of food safety rules and undergo a single auditing procedure that assures their compliance.

Following meetings in Chicago late in July, United Fresh Produce Association changed the status of the proposed ­harmonized GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards covering farm ­operations from “draft” to “final.”

The proposed standards had been on the United Fresh Web site for nearly a year, seeking industry comments.

“At our meeting in Chicago, we looked over all the comments,” said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology. “We made some minor changes and finalized the standards. They are on the Web site, up and ready to be used. We did not finalize the standards for postharvest operations, but we did ­finalize those for field operations and ­harvesting.”

Produce growers have complained for several years about multiple audits.

“All our growers do some kind of audit,” said Tim Mansfield with Sun Orchard Fruit Company in Burt, New York. “It’s something we have to do to gain access to a market. Our growers can meet standards, but the problem is the number of standards and the number of audits. We would like to be able to do one audit once a year and be done with it.”

There are nearly 15 different auditing standards in operation in the United States, including such names as Food Processors Association’s FPA-SAFE, SQF, the USA GMP/GAP, GlobalGAP, NSF Davis Fresh, NCSI Americas, PrimusLabs, GFSI, Tesco Nature’s Choice, AIB, and BRC.

“We don’t want to overpromise,” Gombas said. “But now we have one food safety standard that will fit the entire United States.”

Most auditing systems in the United States, except Primus Labs, agreed to participate in the harmonized standard, he said. GlobalGAP is also not fully in.

“We have been working very closely with GlobalGAP and are very close to agreement on all the food safety aspects, but GlobalGAP contains social responsibility factors that go beyond food safety,” he said. “GlobalGAP is creating a subset of those to separate food safety from the other factors. The goal is to have social accountability become a ‘rider,’ an ­add-on to the food safety parts of the GlobalGAP audit.”

GlobalGAP North America President Kristian Moeller confirmed that the harmonized checklist and a single audit will meet GlobalGAP food safety standards.

Demand driven

How will this work? How can fruit growers be sure you have not merely created one more food safety standard? Good Fruit Grower asked Gombas these ­questions.

In reviewing the history, he noted, it was food buyers—not growers or the government—who demanded that food providers—growers, packing houses, shippers, etc.—use Good Agricultural Practices in growing produce and Good Handling Practices in processing and packing it.

These buyers forced the development of standards, creating the need for auditors to enforce them. USDA, for example, responded by developing a set of standards and an auditing checklist, but these were not “government standards” imposed on growers. It was a service to growers provided by the government, for a fee. All auditing systems require growers and packers to pay for the costs of ­auditing.

“The standards were 95 percent the same,” Gombas said. Still, growers wanting access to a market had to comply with the auditing standards specific to a buyer.

“Buyers make the decision of the ­system they will use,” Gombas said.

Very important in this process was getting buyers to come together to agree to a single, harmonized standard, Gombas said.

Three technical committees were established under the United Fresh umbrella in what became the “Produce GAPs Harmonization Initiative.”

“Many leaders throughout the produce industry have increasingly recognized the cost and inefficiency of multiple standards and audits now being used to measure compliance with Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs),” according to a statement on the United Fresh Web site. “Neither produce suppliers nor retailers and foodservice companies are well served when duplicative standards and audits raise total supply chain costs without enhancement of overall food safety.”

United Fresh hosted a conference on food safety standards in June 2009 and formed three committees to create a ­single, harmonized standard.

The steering committee was chaired by a person from Chiquita Fresh Express. The operations committee was chaired by a person from Wegman’s. The Technical Working Group was led by a person from McDonald’s. The goal was to develop one standard for food safety in field operations and harvesting and one standard for postharvest operations—“one audit by any credible third party, acceptable to all buyers.”

“The big buyers told us, if you do this, we will come,” Gombas said.

“We’re not done yet,” he added.

A calibration committee has been set up to “train the trainers.” Auditors need to perform an audit to the new checklist, so people need to be trained to train auditors. While this process will take some time, Gombas said, some companies have already said they will use the new harmonized standard immediately. Subway, the sandwich company, said it will use the new standard now, and Wegman’s said it would use it this coming year, Gombas said. USDA has agreed to train auditors to the new checklist.

Gombas said  large and small growers, shippers, packers, distributors, food­service operations, the USDA, auditing companies, and academics participated in  the process of creating the standard.

This was developed by the stakeholders, who signed off on the final version, and Gombas said he has every reason to believe they will use it. Growers who want to see the new harmonized checklist can find it at Search for GAPs Harmonization Initiative.