(Jan. 29) WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the end of a Jan. 23-24 meeting dominated by discussions of food safety, the fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee put forward a recommendation to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns that urged a joint industry and government approach to developing food safety standards.

Committee members were not quite as aggressive with their language as the United Fresh Produce Association, which on Jan. 23 advocated “strong federal oversight” of produce safety. United Fresh president Tom Stenzel addressed the advisory committee Jan. 23 to brief them on the deliberations and actions by the United Fresh board relative to food safety.

The text of the advisory committee recommendation on food safety:

“The fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee advocates a strong partnership between industry and appropriate federal government agencies to develop and ensure effective food safety standards that are consistent and applicable to all produce grown anywhere in the U.S., or imported into the country. These standards must allow for commodity-specific food safety practices based on the best available science. The committee urges the Secretary to devote the resources of the USDA, including critical research programs, to assist and support industry initiatives to enhance food safety.”

One committee member said the recommendation allowed flexibility.

“We were a little reluctant to come down with a really heavy-handed affirmation of United’s call,” said committee member Tim York, chief executive officer of Salinas, Calif.-based of Markon Cooperative Inc. “We are 24 people, and we would like to reflect on what others in the industry thought as well.”

A food safety working group will look at the issue between now and the next meeting, he said.

York said United’s call for strong federal oversight was “very appropriate,” and the direction the industry has been moving.

York is part of the buyers’ group of 22 signatories representing $300 billion in retail sales (a portion of which is produce) that had sent letters late last year to Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh, Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, and Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. The letters, among other points, asked for specific and verifiable food safety standards in the wake of foodborne illness outbreaks in 2006 that implicated leafy greens from California’s central coast.

Even if every buyer in the U.S. had signed the letter, York said its influence wouldn’t match that of federal food safety oversight.

California’s proposed leafy greens marketing agreement is a good start, but food safety standards should be applicable to all growing areas, he said.

Committee joins United Fresh push on food safety
Chuck Ciruli (center), chairman of Ciruli Bros. LLC, Rio Rico, Ariz., comments during a Jan. 23-24 meeting of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C. The committee issued a recommendation to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns urging a joint industry and government approach to developing food safety standards. Ciruli was bracketed by Jim Corby (left), vice president of produce merchandising at Food Lion LLC, Salisbury, N.C.; and Jeff Crist, owner of Crist Bros. Orchards Inc., Walden, N.Y.