(Jan. 23, WEB EXCLUSIVE) Despite some calls for mandatory third-party inspection programs for fresh produce growers, the Food and Drug Administration has proceeded with a proposed plan for voluntary third-party certification programs.

In the document, released Jan. 15, the agency said the government favors voluntary certification programs “to help ensure products meet U.S. safety and security standards and to help federal agencies to target their resources more effectively.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to adopt written food safety control plans for produce growers and to consider a mandatory third-party certification system to ensure food safety plans and facilities are reviewed at least once a year.

“Third-party and state auditing based on consistent standards can play an important role in helping FDA to monitor that the regulations are being fully enforced,” center wrote to the FDA in May, during a public comment period.

The FDA, however, does not plan to go that far.

“This guidance is intended as one of the steps in FDA’s future recognition of one or more voluntary third-party certification programs for particular product types,” the agency said in a Jan. 15 news release.

If FDA has confidence in a certification program, it may choose to recognize it as a sign that the agency believes food from a facility certified by the recognized third-party inspection body meets FDA requirements.

While participation in a third-party certification program by fresh produce grower-shippers is voluntary, the FDA said industry participation may provide advantages. Some of those advantages, might include influencing FDA’s inspection priorities and entry-admission decisions for imports.

Some Industry members said they believe FDA recognition of third-party inspection programs, such as those offered by PrimusLabs and Scientific Certification Systems, would provide benefits to the produce supply chain — particularly in terms of reducing costs.

Hank Giclas, vice president of strategic planning science and technology for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., wrote in comments to the FDA in 2008 that standards, even on a commodity basis, could prevent redundant audits that cost the industry millions of dollars.

In addition, the agency said it may develop a public database showing who participates in third-party certification programs.

Certification may also be useful during a foodborne illness outbreak, according to the FDA.

“Establishments that are certified and have effective product tracing systems in place may be more easily and quickly investigated to be excluded by FDA,” the agency said.

However, the agency does not intend to target establishments for special scrutiny solely on lack of participation in certification programs.

One of the issues related to FDA recognition of third-party inspection programs is how third-party inspectors, including private companies, would be asked to share confidential information with FDA concerning audits on produce companies.

The FDA said any government-recognized third-party certification program should immediately notify the agency if inspectors believe that exposure to food would result in serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.

In addition to other guidelines, the FDA guidance says written policies should be in place to safeguard third-party inspectors against conflict of interest issues.