In an industry where every penny counts, Reggie Brown views multiple food-safety audits as a waste of money and manpower.
The manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice-president of the Florida Tomato Exchange is part of a campaign to get buyers to adopt one harmonized food safety audit that’s based on sound science.
“Our goal is to have one single tomato [food safety] audit to avoid duplication and triplication, because the audit itself doesn’t make you a safe operator from a food safety standpoint,” he says. “It just checks to make sure you’re following the rules.”
Together with Martha Roberts, a consultant to the University of Florida and former deputy agriculture commissioner, Brown discussed the harmonized audit as well as the new tomato food safety protocol with attendees of the recent Joint Tomato Conference in Naples.
Multiple audits=more paperwork
Having only one food safety audit would come as welcome relief to Lei Lani Davis, who handles integrated pest management and food safety for Beli Farms, a greenhouse vegetable operation near Wellborn.
Beli already passed the state-required audit as part of the Florida Tomato Good Agricultural Program, or T-GAPs.
But Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets requires its suppliers pass an audit conducted by Primus Labs. So Davis says she is spending countless hours preparing the paperwork for the November audit.
“As much as the subjects are the same and the questions are the same, it’s still set up differently,” she says.
Section 1.1 in one audit, for example, may deal with an entirely different subject than section 1.1 in the other audit. “Maybe I could cross-reference it, but it’s so different, I’d be afraid it wouldn’t go smoothly,” Davis says.
Industry on a mission
The campaign for a harmonized food safety audit is actually an offshoot of the Tomato Food Safety Protocol. In the works for about two years, the protocol—known officially as the “The Food Safety Programs and Auditing Protocol for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain”—is based on science and was developed by consensus of the North American tomato industry, Brown says.
The protocol is organized in a very “practical, pragmatic fashion,” he says, adding it is set up as you would produce the crop.
There are four modules—open-field production, greenhouse production, packinghouses, and repacking and distribution.
All of the modules are consistently written, so they are similarly worded on the same issues to avoid confusion.
The section on worker hygiene for greenhouse workers, for example, is found in a similar location and contains similar wording as the worker hygiene section for open-field production.
There also are versions in Spanish.
Florida growers and packers will see little difference as the protocol was based on the state’s tomato food safety program.
The California fresh-market tomato industry has adopted very similar GAPs and BMPs.
The protocol is a living document and will change as new research results show a need for updates, Brown says. The next step will be gaining acceptance of a single food safety audit among buyers.
A surprising success
The harmonized audit was tested this summer during the California fresh-market tomato season with surprising acceptance, says Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative.
“We have become a single audit [state] in California,” Beckman says. “Only one customer isn’t taking this audit.”
More than 40 foodservice companies have accepted the single audit and do not require an additional third-party audit before they will buy California tomatoes, Beckman says.
Among those are YUM Brands, which represents Pizza Hut and Burger King; Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden; Subway and Jack in the Box, he says.
Beckman attributes part of their success to a food safety database that buyers can access.
The database contains the results of 116 audits comprising 16,900 questions, as of mid-September. California tomato growers had a 99.72 percent compliance rate, Beckman says.
“It’s transparent, so buyers can actually look at the food safety records of a grower before they even make a decision to purchase the product,” he says.
In the past, many buyers didn’t accept an audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state—in Florida’s case—and required another one conducted by a third-party auditing firm.
A few growers reported having to have two or three additional audits to meet multiple customers’ requirements.
In Florida, a state-conducted audit costs an average of $262.50, according to a report by University of Florida graduate assistant Gabrielle Ferro and professor John VanSickle, both of the agricultural economics department.
A private third-party audit is estimated to cost up to $1,500, not counting the additional manpower needed to prepare for such an inspection.
Brown says based on personal discussions with buyers, there’s an 80 percent to 90 percent chance that acceptance of a single harmonized audit will occur nationally.
If that happens, Brown says he hopes that buyers of other commodities follow suit.
To view the tomato food safety protocol or the harmonized audit, visit www.unit edfresh.org/newsviews/food_safety_resource_center/fresh_tomato_supply_chain.
Contact Vicky Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 571-0414.