Tomato industry leaders discuss 'audit fatigue' during summit

02/01/2012 06:09:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

MAITLAND, Fla. — Fresh tomato supply chain leaders are sharpening food safety programs and auditing protocols with a goal of cutting foodborne illnesses linked to their product.

Doug OhlemeierMichelle Smith (from left), senior policy analyst with the Food and Drug Administration, listens as Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, and David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, discuss tomato industry food safety Feb. 1. Members of the industry representing Florida, California and other states are meeting to tackle issues dealing with growing and distribution practices. The Feb. 1-2 meeting at the Florida Tomato Committee and Florida Tomato Exchange headquarters comes as the entire produce industry awaits a Food and Drug Administration produce safety rule.

Audit fatigue, or numerous audits grower-shippers’ customers often require, remained central in discussions.

“How many standards can you audit to?” asked Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto. “Audit fatigue within our group at all levels is unbelievable. We have customers coming behind other customers checking the other audits because they each have their own specs.

Ed Beckman, president of the Certified Greenhouse Vegetable Producers Association of North America, Fresno, Calif., said the debate should be about how tomato food safety metrics reflect science. Beckman, until recently president of Fresno, Calif.-based California Tomato Growers, said the industry seeks collaboration with the FDA and the U.S, Department of Agriculture throughout the audit process.

“This is not growers and customers sitting in a room and defining what our future is,” Beckman said. “We don’t simply pull a number out of the air and throw it in that document and say it’s good.

“... This about bringing people together, sharing ideas, sharing our frustrations with existing audits, auditing and trying to come back with a solution that meets everyone’s needs in a single audit that is based on science.”

Doug OhlemeierJohn Darling (left), food safety manager with West Coast Tomato Inc., talks with Kristian Moeller, president of the Bethesda, Md.-based GlobalGAP North America Inc., a part of GlobalGAP standards organization, during a Feb. 1 tomato food safety meeting in Maitland, Fla.Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the FDA, discussed the produce safety rule and how it should affect the fresh produce industry.

Smith said the final leg of the rule remains down the road, and may allow for three months of comment — longer than other agency rulemaking.

“What you’re doing is important,” Smith said. “The other part of our process is to recognize what people are currently doing and take that into consideration when thinking about the kinds of requirements we want to propose.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to say what the rules will look like,” she said. “A number of groups like the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement have committed down the road to look at their provisions and reconcile when necessary with the rule when finalized. What you are doing is a great example of helping to move things forward.”

During the meetings, growers and buyers discussed customer expectations, additions to the standards and issues such as commingling at repacking operations.

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Nogales Az  |  February, 02, 2012 at 08:48 AM

fortunate times to experience 'fatigue' ='s all good.

Chavez  |  February, 02, 2012 at 09:00 AM

All growers have "audit fatigue". Every commodity is experiencing conflicting ideas and regulations from their customers. I think each group of growers of a certain commodity should join together and create their own set of standards specific to their product. Of course now that the government is involved it will be a one size fits all program. Potatoes and tomatoes shouldnt be held to the same standard since the potatoe is usually cooked for a long period of time. Where is the scientific data that supports the regulations set forth by the 3rd party auditing outfits? It is frustrating for me to be told to use 150ppm of chlorine on my commodity when you cant even swim in a pool at those levels. I think the whole food safety system is broken and will just be worse once the government gets into the act.

Georgia  |  February, 02, 2012 at 11:07 AM

We need to focus the audits on the critical points, and when those points fail then the shipper fails. As the customer keeps adding minor criteria to the audits more will be missed and the audit may not fail however real food safety will be compromised. The customer needs some common sense people not scientist to determine audit protocol.

Food Safety Gal    
Canada  |  February, 02, 2012 at 02:41 PM

With respect, I think it IS the scientists that should be determining the "critical points." One must realize that producing safe food requires an integrated SYSTEM of practices, all working together. The Global Food Safety Initiative and Harmonized GAP programs used science and research to confirm which practices are important to ensure safe food, then combined that data into a common set of standards for every audit. It is SCIENTISTS who have the appropriate training and knowledge to adequately identify risks in production process. Often times, it is not one single event, but a series of them that lead to a breach in food safety (case in point: Jensen Farms). When the person responsible for food safety at a particular facility has the appropriate scientific knowledge, he or she can identify the situations or practices that may be risky and take steps to mitigate them. If food safety personnel were selected for their level of knowledge of microbiology, perhaps we could improve the system overall. Too often, food safety positions are underqualified and underpaid.

Texa  |  February, 03, 2012 at 08:10 PM

When are we going to start third party or any type of outside audits on Grocers distribution centers and stores. When are large box stores going to take some responsibility.

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