PLEASANTON, Calif. – Growers, regulators and retail and foodservice operators weighed the costs of food safety audits and traceability against the benefits at PMA Fresh Connections.

About 80 attended the March 10 meeting in Pleasanton, Calif., one of 17 Fresh Connections the Produce Marketing Association plans in the U.S. and abroad this year.

Topics vary. At the California event, third-party food safety audits and traceability were two of the key subjects in a panel discussion of industry leaders and government officials.

Third-party audits

The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering accreditation for third-party auditors, said Barbara Cassens, FDA’s San Francisco district director.

“We are leaning in that direction,” she said, responding to a question from Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science and technology officer. “Working out that program is a matter of understanding what principles apply, and how we audit the auditors. The fundamental question is, does it provide another level of safety? If it doesn’t, it’s not time well spent.”

Other panelists discussed the importance and limitations of the audits.

“All of our partners have programs that address risk,” said Jon Holder, Raley’s senior manager for produce and floral. “For high-risk products…if they’re not providing audits in a timely manner, we’ll send in our third-party auditor. You’re only as good as your last audit, probably. Employees get lazy, and if it’s not measured or checked on a regular basis, that’s where you open yourself up for issues.”

Mike Jantschke, director of food safety at Monterey, Calif.-based Pro*Act, said the foodservice distributor uses audits sparingly.

“We feel there’s probably too much auditing and too little use of the data generated to affect decisions,” Jantschke said. “The whole audit process can become calcified. For many suppliers, it’s like their badge to get in. But as (information) gets filed it’s never looked at again. We still use third-party audits, but target them to find out particular things about a grower or commodity.”

“In the 1980s, audits were commissioned by companies to improve,” he said. “Now it has become a huge industry, generating a lot of audits but I’m not sure we get the equivalent benefits for food safety.”

‘Level playing field’

Cassens and Whitaker said the Food Safety Modernization Act has put commodities on an equal footing, despite exemptions for smaller growers in the legislation.

“For every (California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement), there’s also a commodity right now saying, ‘We don’t have a food safety problem,’” Whitaker said. “This catalyzes everyone to get started. It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, it’s lettuce, tomatoes, melons, green onions.’ That’s really not what’s happening. Jalapeno peppers didn’t have a problem until they had a problem. Hazelnuts? Come on, they had a problem. As we get better detection tools and better epidemiology, we’re going to find some of these things are a little more widespread than we thought. One of the benefits of FSMA is that it does get everybody to that level playing field.”

The FDA plans to publish its proposed fresh produce rule in December, Cassens said. Following a comment period, the final rule could be ready by mid-2012 or early 2013.

Traceability

Traceability implementation means savings as well as costs, panelists said. How do the two add up?

“I don’t believe it negates the initial cost,” said Susan Canales, packaging manager at Salinas, Calif.-based The Nunes Co. “The value comes down the road; you see it over time.”

For example, Canales said, traceability data might show a few loads are unusually fast or slow getting from field to cooler. The questions prompted, she said, could result in savings.

Ed Treacy, PMA’s vice president of supply chain efficiencies, said one Florida grower cut the retail rejection rate on its strawberries from about 5% to less than 1% by following traceability data back to picking crews.

“Your biggest bang for the buck is visibility,” said Todd Baggett, chief executive officer of RedLine Solutions, which cosponsored the event with PMA. “You can see what’s happening right now. One customer said, ‘We never really knew (before) we had missing product.’”

When recalls become necessary, Baggett said, they may be kept smaller than they would have been without traceability.

PMA event weighs food safety costs, benefits

Mike Hornick

Panelists at PMA Fresh Connections in Pleasanton, Calif., from left, included Mike Jantschke, food safety director at Pro*Act; Jon Holder, Raley’s senior manager for produce and floral; Barbara Cassens, FDA San Francisco district director; Tom Sidebottom, FDA San Francisco lab director; Susan Canales, packaging manager for The Nunes Co.; and Todd Baggett, chief executive officer of RedLine Solutions.