(Sept. 25, 5:16 p.m.) While the fresh produce industry sees potential benefits in a proposed Food and Drug Administration-approved voluntary third party certification program, the likely loss of confidentiality between third party auditors and the food companies they audit is troubling to many.

Confidential information between third party certification programs and their clients may be lost if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues with a plan to outsource part of its food safety oversight responsibilities to third party inspectors, industry leaders told the FDA this month in letters, faxes and e-mails.

The FDA issued draft guidance — a prelude to a formal proposal — July on a voluntary third party certification program that would allow private companies and other agencies of government to vouch that fresh produce and other foods meets FDA standards.

“If things are done right, it could be very beneficial,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del-based Produce Marketing Association.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said in May that an FDA-accepted third party certification program would be of “significant value” to the fresh produce industry if all parties accept the FDA-recognized certification.

However, during a comment period on the FDA’s proposal, which ended Sept. 8, one of the common themes from the industry was concern about the confidential relationship between third party certification programs and food companies.

Gombas said Sept. 25 that many questions remain unanswered about the ultimate course of the FDA third party certification plan, including who would pay for the inspections, if the “voluntary” program will someday become mandatory, how the agency will ensure that all certification programs and auditors are equal and the confidentiality of the data collected by auditors.

“If FDA starts to contract third party audit companies, things will change,” he said.

At what point audit information from FDA-approved third party certification program become reportable to the FDA — and possibly subject to a Freedom of Information Act request — are questions produce marketers are asking, Means said.

“That’s something that would have to be worked out or people would not want to participate,” she said Sept. 25.

Another key question is whether FDA would pay and provide oversight for the program, she said.

Robert Whitaker, chief science officer of the PMA, in remarks submitted to the FDA Sept. 8, reaffirmed that PMA supports FDA’s proposal to develop certification programs for third parties to perform food safety audits against a globally recognized standard.

However, Whitaker notes the FDA’s proposal would permit certification body and inspectors to “examine records and other information relevant to the safety and security of the products for which certification is sought.”

Those records, he said, could include preventive control plans and records, laboratory results, records regarding the upkeep and use of equipment, consumer complaint files and distribution records, the FDA has indicated.

Whitaker said it is important to develop an arbitration procedure for those instances where the audited operation and the certified inspector cannot agree as to the appropriate corrective action.

Food safety certifier AIB International, Manhattan, Kan., suggested the FDA ditch its proposal.

“We suggest FDA explores a pragmatic and non-regulatory approach to third party certification that is far more likely to succeed when operating on the proposed voluntary basis,” the AIB statement said.