Published January 15, 2011

The Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry is forming a special task force to draw up a food safety plan.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said the task force’s job will be to develop a science-based good agricultural practices plan that is as reasonable as possible in order to address the specific risks and needs of the tree fruit industry.

“The intent is to help prevent unnecessary or mis­directed rules imposed by outside,” he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last summer that it was planning to introduce regulations on the safe production, harvesting, and packing of fresh produce. It received more than 700 comments on the concept of developing fresh produce safety requirements. The regulations are scheduled to be announced this spring, and the FDA will seek further input before they go into effect.

Schlect said the FDA had the authority to do this, regardless of federal food safety legislation, although the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in December, would bolster the agency’s position. The legislation will require preventive controls for the production and processing of specific fruits and vegetables when shown necessary by a risk-based scientific analysis by FDA.

The Hort Council has been working with the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee to form a task force of about 20 to 30 experts—mainly tree fruit industry staff who work with private auditing companies. The task force will include a broad cross-section of people in terms of geographic region and size of operation. Deborah Carter, technical issues manager with the Hort Council, and Dr. Ines Hanrahan, project manager with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, will also be part of the group. It will draw on outside experts, such as scientists from universities or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as necessary.

The task force will focus on all deciduous tree fruits—apples, pears, cherries, and stone fruits—because production practices are similar and many growers grow more than just one of those crops.

Schlect said the FDA has welcomed produce industry input historically. Agency staff are looking to experts to give them information so they can make sound decisions. The leafy greens and tomato industries, which have been the subject of food safety scares, have already worked with the agency to develop voluntary guidelines. And, the citrus industry recently completed a good safety ­guidance handbook for growers.

The FDA’s goal is to protect the public, and its staff are trying to do so in a way that doesn’t unduly interfere with the growing of crops or the economic situation of growers, Schlect said. “But by the very nature of regulations, they’re going to be intrusive and they know that. They want the industry to show them where they should target their efforts so they’re not doing unnecessary things.”

He expected that the tree fruit industry’s task force would hold its first meeting in late January and would develop a tree fruit food safety plan within about six months, drawing on the work already done by the leafy greens, tomato, and citrus industries so it doesn’t have to start at square one.

Low risk

The plan will take into account that tree fruits present a lower risk than crops that are grown on the ground, but also that a food safety problem at one orchard or packing house can affect the whole industry and the marketing of the entire crop.

The plan will take into account the requirements of private food safety schemes, such as GlobalGAP and the Safe Quality Food Institute’s SQF. Over the last few years, tree fruit producers have had to adapt to many private standards that are being imposed by retailers as a condition of sale and object to having to comply with multiple schemes and audits that just add cost, Schlect said. Since the private schemes are all very similar, United Fresh has been leading a national harmonization effort with the goal of having retailers accept one food safety standard that could be verified by different auditors.

Schlect hopes that retailers will accept the tree fruit task force’s food safety plan as reasonable and will be encouraged to eliminate some of their more frivolous requirements and focus on real problems.

Initially, the plan will focus on Pacific Northwest production practices. However, Schlect said practices in other regions are probably similar, and he envisions that other parts of the country may become involved in the future through organizations such as the California Tree Fruit League, U.S. Apple Association, or the National Peach Council.