PLANT CITY, Fla. — Like their counterparts growing other fruits and vegetables, Florida strawberry grower-shippers work to assure the shipment of safe produce free of contamination.

Hinton Farms Produce Inc. has been Primus Labs certified through Glades Crop Care for three years, said Cammy Hinton, Hinton Farms’ office manager.

Hinton in early December said the operation was waiting for rules from Washington, D.C., concerning the produce traceability initiative.

“On this small farm exemption, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is opposed to that,” she said.

“If we are not all following the same rules, we won’t have a universally safe product. This auditing business is expensive. The concept is great, but a lot of it is busy work.”

Hinton said the idea of traceability remains important and said identifying where flats of berries have been picked is something her operation has done in a less formal manner for years.

In early December, Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC had Glades Crop Care auditors scheduled to conduct a Primus audit of Astin’s refrigeration units.

The grower-shipper also had an audit of its ranches and harvesting operations scheduled for two days later.

Shawn Pollard, an Astin salesman, said Astin does many things to ensure safe growing and handling of its berries.

“The hard part of the audit is trying to find something to pick as it’s difficult during this cold weather,” he said in early December.

“It’s hard to find a farm that actually has ripe berries to pick when it’s freezing. I don’t remember experiencing that in a long time.”

Berry grower-shipper and importer SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, has long maintained food safety certifications.

Before entering the Florida strawberry deal in 2008-09, SunnyRidge received its GlobalGAP certification during the early 2000s for its blueberry growing and shipping, said Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer.

“The industry has been proactive for several years (on food safety),” Mixon said.

“We have fought hard for many years to be GlobalGAP certified through all our production regardless of what state or country the berries come from. Let’s hope it (new food safety rules) (doesn’t) add undue pressure or costs to us and allows for a level playing field across growing regions and types and sizes, as food safety pierces all sizes of farms.”

Four years ago, Gulf Coast Produce Inc., Dover, became more focused on food safety by hiring a dedicated person to supervise the program.

“You need a separate person dedicated to it,” said Steve Machell, sales manager.

“There’s a lot to it and it is critical with the paperwork. All of the houses around here have done a nice job on it. Everyone has stepped up to the plate on this important issue.”

Clear Springs Packing LLC, Bartow, performs all the standard audits and tries to institute practices that exceed the requirements for its berries, particularly in the field, said Carole McKenzie, vice president of public affairs.

McKenzie said the grower-shipper is working with some University of Florida extension researchers to see if it can develop an auditing program that reaches across the different crops Clear Springs grows, such as blueberries.

“Food safety is something we are very interested in and keep on the forefront,” McKenzie said.

“It’s a challenge and it varies by commodity. It’s a challenging issue because every commodity has different standards.”

Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner with Colorful Harvest LLC, Salinas, Calif., agrees with forthcoming tighter produce food safety regulations.

“These need to be mandatory and constantly monitored and improved at every step of a business,” he said.