(Nov. 10, 2:55 p.m.) ORLANDO, Fla. — Produce people heard what they as an industry can do to keep their businesses from being destroyed in potential food safety outbreaks by adopting proactive safety measures.

During an Oct. 26 session, “Food Safety: Keeping Your Business Healthy,” at Fresh Summit 2008, attendees heard from panelists about the latest in regulations and safety initiatives as well as how to consider food safety investments in a return-on-investment perspective.

Bob Whitaker, PMA’s Salinas, Calif.-based chief science officer, said the industry must continue its food safety diligence and try to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate possible future food safety issues.

“I see the industry is demonstrating the will to go forward by having the courage to act and to act now and to get involved in industry food safety activities,” Whitaker said. “And the industry has character to ask what we need to do further to make our programs better.”

Whitaker said the industry is better overall after the outbreaks and said he has noticed many positive changes bubbling under the surface during the past 1½ years. More PMA members, he said, are asking him for technical information.

The industry, Whitaker said, is putting more funding into food safety research and global standards are arising.

“There have been inconsistencies between buyers and suppliers,” Whitaker said. “Often, a supplier that invested heavily in food safety competed in the marketplace with someone who didn’t. What we’re seeing today is an increased awareness on both sides.”

Proprietary programs

Whitaker said he sees buying groups coming up with proprietary food safety programs.

Whitaker said consumer confidence in produce safety is beginning to lag. He said surveys show 50% expressed confidence in U.S.-grown produce while only 26% maintain confidence in imported produce.

Whitaker said the industry learned lessons from the spinach crisis in 2006 and the tomato salmonella outbreak this summer. The lessons were that such outbreaks didn’t affect only the growers or packers involved, and the outbreaks taught the industry how it has a lot of room for improvement in dealing with the Food and Drug Administration.

Tom O’Brien, of the O’Brien DC law firm, Washington, D.C., discussed the legislative and regulatory outlook in Washington. Had it not been for the short year because of the presidential election cycle, O’Brien said he thinks the industry would have had food safety legislation passed. He said Congress would have preferred waiting for a different administration.

“The same statistics on consumer confidence in our products plays out politically,” he said. “They’re not just consumers. They’re also voters.”

Whoever wins the presidential election, O’Brien said, will want to prove himself with new appointees to the FDA.

Developments coming in November

Bonnie Fernandez, executive director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of California-Davis, discussed the formation of the center and how it was working to fund research projects.

Fernandez said the center has formed a partnership with the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, and plans to use the center’s technical committee to help the leafy greens program formulate research priorities and match them on a one-to-one basis. Fernandez said the center plans to formally announce the cooperative arrangement in late November.

“The challenge here and the goal of the center is interpreting the data so it is usable and so industry people can use the results,” Fernandez said. “If we are successful and we look at our mission, address our priorities and vision for the future, we will be recognized as the go-to organization for produce food safety.”