Working toward reasonable requirements
After hosting an average of 20 third-party food safety audits annually, you might expect April England-Mackie to be a little frustrated. However, England-Mackie, the food safety and farm programs manager for custom grower Martin Jefferson & Sons in Salinas, Calif., is more concerned about keeping flexible and reasonable standards for the audits in place. “The process has been in place for so long that the requirements contained in it are based on science and we are able to still operate our businesses,” she says. Growers in California “feel that the guidelines we follow here are sufficient and that there really isn’t the need for additional audits, and they are really being pushed on us by the buyers of the product, large retailers and restaurants that are not necessarily attuned to the growing practices and what it takes to produce food.”
The food safety audit process has become precarious for producers, and there are multiple national movements to “harmonize” guidelines measuring compliance with good agriculture practices (GAP).
“The industry has created its own biggest problem,” says Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, which is pushing for mandatory standards. “Everyone has their own little tweak.”
Gombas is referring to third-party auditing companies and organizations that certify food safety programs for players in the produce industry. Depending on who a company chooses and who their buyers pick, audit requirements can vary. “Thirty years ago, the biggest companies would trust what their buyers were telling them, but the industry itself kept telling people to go out and verify what your suppliers are doing,” says Gombas. “I remember doing audits in the 1980s, but we never told them what their audit should look like. We’ve created our own audit industry.”
In the summer of 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a food safety bill, and companion legislation proposed to the Senate could impact food safety regulations soon.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration released a joint statement that “in the midst of evaluating a proposed marketing agreement for the leafy green industry, the FDA is currently developing a proposed produce safety regulation. It is our expectation that these products will take into account the diverse nature of farming operations and that any marketing agreement would conform to any regulations that may be promulgated by FDA.”
Additionally, United’s Technical Working Group released the first draft of a harmonized standard aimed at “establishing a single audit standard for an industry that has been plagued by myriad auditing bodies and standards.”
Would harmonization mean fewer audits and decreased cost for the industry? “If we can harmonize standards, buyers can at least compare them,” Gombas says. “Is this a slam dunk? No. It’s going to take some time.”
It starts with a program
Food safety programs are not federal legal requirements now, but have been embraced by the industry. The first document to establish guidelines was published by the FDA in 1998, and it is the basis of the majority of audits.
Companies establishing programs often contract third-party auditing companies to certify the programs and track them. The number of audits that occur and the guidelines used for evaluation begin to multiply based on operation type and the number of retailers, handlers and shippers with additional requirements.
Martin Jefferson & Sons, a sixth-generation, 3,000-acre ranch, sells its leafy greens and other produce to a half-dozen shippers. While each shipper may request audits, so may the handler. England-Mackie says the shipper pays the cost for its audits, but there are still expenses for her company that are inherent.
“It’s super time-consuming on behalf of the grower and shipper taking these auditors out to the ranches and going through paperwork. You have to have full-time staff,” she says.
Grower/shipper Jon Schwalls, operations director for Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable of Norman Park, Ga., is seasoned in the food safety discipline. His company instituted a food safety program and began third-party audits with Primus Labs about 10 years ago. The company has been able to use its audits with its retail buyers, although many of the restaurant chains Southern Valley serves have additional requirements.
Southern Valley’s flagship is the pole-grown cucumber, and the company farms 3,000 acres in Georgia, Tennessee and Yucatan, Mexico. “The food safety initiative is not going away and the industry has now heavily engaged in traceability. Unless you adopt a food safety mentality, it’s going to be real challenging going forward.”
Schwalls suggests choosing a reputable third-party certification company that is widely recognized and that “has the right tools that will make your document development user-friendly.” He says, “As [growers] become more involved, they will also begin to see there’s not a whole lot of difference in these audits, only in the level of requirement between certifiers.”
The Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association in LaGrange, Ga., offers a third-party food safety certification, Georgia GAP, to members based on FDA guidelines. “Right now there’s a lot of concern and confusion within the farming community and the produce industry because there is so much going on,” says Beth Bland, food safety director for the organization.
“The confusion comes when there may be a large and influential retail chain that decides they want to do one thing or another,” she says. “Ultimately, money talks. At this point, no one is being reimbursed at any level for the food safety steps and provisions put in place. It’s all being shouldered by the producer and packer.”
In Tennessee, the University of Tennessee Extension Service sponsored two training sessions about how potential federal regulations would affect growers in July. At the time the events were planned, the expectation was that new guidelines would be in place.
“I think they [growers] are frustrated because they don’t know what will face them and it won’t be in a short time frame,” says David Qualls, extension agent in Lincoln County. “Some of the older ones said they’ll quit before they’ll go to this, but they don’t know what this is.”
Qualls is quick to point out that many growing operations have food safety programs even though they don’t document their activities.
Creating standards that apply to operations of different sizes and commodities could be challenging. “The biggest thing everyone is looking for is having common guidelines across the board,” says Mark Paulk, operations manager for grower/shipper Borders Melons East LLC in Adel, Ga. “The problem lies in that some people think they are the small guy and they shouldn’t have to jump through the hoops like the big guys do. If someone gets sick, who suffers? We all do. It shuts the industry down overnight,” he says.
Borders Melons East is an extension of its founding company in Edinburg, Texas, and has more than 7,500 acres devoted to growing watermelons. All of the company’s growers are certified in their food safety program.
Many growers want guidelines to factor in the nature of growing different crops and an understanding that some commodities have not been implicated in a food-borne illness outbreak.
“What we’d like to have is something that is crop-specific, because the current audits we take to the field aren’t specific to tree fruits,” says Lee Showalter of Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., who spoke to the FDA over the summer during its comment period on food safety guidelines. “We do this proactively, but we don’t consider we necessarily should be treated in quite the same way as some of the other commodities with a higher risk level.”
Rice Fruit lays claim to being the largest apple-packing facility in the eastern United States.
“I don’t know what their outcome will be, but the FDA is to be complimented,” says Showalter. “They did come in with an open attitude and mindset. I don’t know how this will ultimately come down, but I expect Congress will pass some kind of food safety legislation and it will be up to the FDA to set down rules and regulations. I just hope when we get there we get something that pertains by risk and by science.”
Some growers have not been required to achieve food safety certification, but have established it any way.
Calhoun Produce, Inc. of Ashburn, Ga., is certified by the Georgia GAP program. The company’s grocery retailers have not required the certification for the company’s beans and peas, “but I am certified, so I feel like I’m ready when I do need to move to the chains,” says Sheila Rice, Calhoun’s vice president.
Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.