(June 8) WASHINGTON, D.C. — A vigorous discussion of the industry’s response to produce safety and the potential role the U.S. Department of Agriculture could play going forward highlighted the June 4-5 meeting of the Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Board.

The meeting also revealed a lingering lack of consensus about the industry’s best strategy to respond to the produce safety crisis.

On June 5, the advisory board unanimously approved a recommendation that the USDA “facilitate and advocate” unified food safety standards for fruits and vegetables.

The advisory committee considered but rejected the insertion of “mandatory” in the recommendation about food safety. Some said it was unclear what mandatory oversight of produce safety might mean, and others noted mandatory was implied.

The two-day advisory committee meeting began with a speech from Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. He said the advisory committee would be renewed again; the June 4-5 meeting was the last of the current two-year term of the committee. The first committee met in April 2002.

Knight sought input on the agency’s role in food safety activities relating to produce.

Committee liaison Bob Keeney, deputy administrator of fruit and vegetable programs at the Agricultural Marketing Service, said the USDA is helping the industry meet voluntary good agricultural and handling standards through audits.

He mentioned the possibility of expanding audits and creating a national leafy greens marketing agreement.

“There is a role for USDA,” said Mike Stuart, member of the committee and president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla. “The challenge we have as an industry is to come up with some kind of consensus.”

Stuart said there is a “patchwork quilt” of industry responses, including the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, Florida tomato growers creating their own food safety solutions and regional and national trade associations carving out positions that differ in their embrace of federal oversight.