WASHINGTON, D.C. — Harmonization of food safety auditing standards was the theme repeated by panelists at the GlobalGAP 2009 U.S. tour stop as the organization tries to gain greater acceptance in North America.

GlobalGAP’s Oct. 29 conference in Washington, D.C., was part of a five-city world tour to gather input from stakeholders and foster closer ties to industry and government.

GlobalGAP tour emphasizes standardization of audits

Courtesy GlobalGAP

Nigel Garbutt, chairman of GlobalGAP, Cologne, Germany, addresses attendees at the opening session of an Oct. 29 conference in Alexandria, Va., focusing on harmonization of food safety audit standards.

“The intention is to say what is going to be the preferred way forward in the future,” Nigel Garbutt, chairman of GlobalGAP, Cologne, Germany, said between sessions. “The GlobalGAP approach has proven to work globally … 100,000 audits done every year in more than 80 countries. It’s applicable globally, so why wouldn’t it work here?”

Garbutt said ten years ago when GlobalGAP started in Europe (then known as EurepGAP) a sea of competitors were offering their own food safety certifications in the marketplace. The result — much like the U.S. right now — led to growers paying for duplicate audits to meet the needs of different retailers.

Jim Colbert, field horticulturalist at the Chelan Fruit Cooperative, Chelan, Wash., said that most of the 285 apple, pear and cherry growers he represents already do 90% of the record keeping required by GlobalGAP.

“I represent audit fatigue,” he said at an afternoon panel discussion. “Just in the past year we have five different audits and seven different packets of information that retail customers are asking us to fill out.”

Craig Watson, vice president of quality assurance and agriculture sustainability at Sysco Corp., Houston, agreed, saying a single audit would improve and correct lack of American consumer confidence and remove cost from the supply chain.

“It’s not sustainable to have 20 or 30 different programs and 20 or 30 different audits in the U.S.,” said GlobalGAP’s Garbutt.

Garbutt said that 37 retailers are members of the organization, though there is little participation from U.S. retailers at this stage.

David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety & technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., during a keynote address called for all stakeholders to come to the table to establish a single auditing standard.

“We’re spending all these resources to adapt to every different audit when we can standardize and redirect those resources,” Gombas said.

Asked how big the table would be at United Fresh’s planned November meeting, Gombas replied that the venue fits 400.

Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst for the Food and Drug Administration and also a keynote speaker, said food safety requires public-private cooperation.

“Food safety is a global issue. It knows no bounds, but we are at this point committed to developing a regulation that is science-based, scale appropriate and reflects standards that are clear and enforceable,” she said.

Garbutt said by engaging U.S. stakeholders and the FDA, there can be a two-way exchange of expertise and key learning points that would lead to lower risk.

“Consumers will only be confident if there is a very strong partnership between the public and private sector in food control,” said Garbutt, though he and other panelists indicated that no matter what FDA guidelines are set, GlobalGAP will likely go further.

While conference speakers emphasized they did not want to “re-invent the wheel” in identifying benchmarks for food safety, some of the approximately 70 attendees did not think the effort would be easy.

During a question-and-answer period with the afternoon panel, Gabriele Ludwig, associate director of environmental affairs for the Almond Board of California, Modesto, Calif., said she was not convinced harmonization of standards would take place with so many different entities vying to lead the way. 

The FDA’s Smith responded first by saying the agency was committed to work with public and private stakeholders and to hear their concerns.
 
“We do not perceive that this regulation undoes the efforts that are being done by other groups. We are looking for ways that we can be complimentary in what we do,” she said.