(Oct. 30) Six weeks after an outbreak of E. coli outbreak brought the spinach industry to a halt and seemed to shake consumer confidence in the safety of other leafy-green items, eight major foodservice and retail buying organizations are calling on produce associations to develop a single set of safety standards for the entire produce industry.

Buyers hold the key to establishing a single set of commodity-specific standards, according to the group, which on Oct. 26 sent a written request for support to the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

The coalition wants the major components of new standards in place by Dec. 15 with first implementation by early April.

The working group’s immediate focus is on lettuce and leafy greens, but it also wants programs in place for other commodities with “actual and/or perceived risk,” such as melons, tomatoes, and green onions.

The signatories included:

  • Greg Reinauer, vice president of sales and marketing for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Amerifresh Inc.;

  • Reggie Griffin, vice president of produce and floral for the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.;

  • Ron Anderson, vice president of corporate produce for Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc.;

  • Mike Hansen, senior director of produce for Houston-based Sysco Corp.;

  • Frank Padilla, general merchandising manager of corporate fresh foods for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp.;

  • Tim York, chief executive officer of the Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Corp.;

  • Gary Gionnette, vice president of produce for Minneapolis-based Supervalu Inc.;

  • David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc.; and

  • Gene Harris, senior purchasing manager for Denny's Corp., Spartanburg, S.C.

Other major buying groups — including Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer — are likely to join the effort, the group said.

“We look to the broader industry to join us in what we’re trying to do, whether retail, foodservice or wholesalers, to arrive at a food-safety solution throughout the industry,” Corsi said.

The working group is asking the three produce associations to contact other produce-industry associations in the U.S. and Mexico to join the effort.

The group wants standards that are specific, measurable and verifiable, as opposed to the current system, in which food-safety protocols and standards are established among individual companies and their suppliers, often using periodic inspections by third-party auditors.

“We want to pull all these people together and collaborate on these new standards,” York said Oct. 26. “We want standards based on what we know today and translate those requirements into standardized auditing criteria and have a certification program in place.”

The industry also must identify what it doesn’t know, York said.

“Standards may evolve as research progresses,” he said.

But a one-size-fits all standard for each commodity, York said, can do much to help avert crises like the recent spinach-related E. coli outbreak.

The latest crisis was a blatant signal that change in the food-safety system was needed, York said.

“A couple of things were apparent to us,” York said. “One of them was that our system made mistakes, weren’t following protocols, what have you. The industry and consumers were obviously impacted. And, we’re at a point where we’re concerned about consumer trust in our products and how we as an industry are going to respond to it.”

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