(Dec. 15) Amidst a flurry of foodborne-illness outbreaks linked to fresh produce, a growing coalition of foodservice and retail buying organizations says the fruit and vegetable industry has taken key first steps in addressing safety concerns.

The buyers group — the original coalition of eight organizations had, as of Dec. 14, grown to 21, representing $300 billion in retail and foodservice sales — said the fruit and vegetable industry has taken major steps toward implementing a system of specific, verifiable safety procedures that the group wants in place by April.

The coalition was crafting a follow-up letter to the industry’s major associations — the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers — to re-emphasize the need for continued progress toward a refined food-safety system, said Tim York, chief executive officer of Salinas, Calif.-based of Markon Corp., who helped to organize the coalition effort.

“We have every reason to believe, based on the progress that has been made, that we will meet that goal,” York said Dec. 14.

The group had requested in an Oct. 26 letter to the associations that the first components of new standards be in place by Dec. 15., with first implementation by early April.

“The start of the Salinas season, we think, is a critical point,” York said.

The coalition’s immediate focus is on lettuce and leafy greens, but it also wants programs in place for other commodities, such as melons, tomatoes and green onions.

“Three of those items have been blamed in the last 45 days for food-safety issues,” York said. “Those are the ones that have been repeatedly pointed to as higher-risk items. I think it validates that we’re on the right track. But, again, I think the industry is on the right track. We’re seeing indications that people are taking food safety seriously and are taking the right steps.”

The industry has made palpable progress toward meeting safety goals in several ways, said Jim Gorny, United‘s senior vice president of food safety and technology.

“We’re working as quickly and diligently as possible in three areas — best practices, compliance and, certainly, research to address some of the unknowns,” Gorny said Dec. 14.

Specific target deadlines, such as Dec. 15, are less important than developing exacting standards, Gorny added.

“All I can say is it’s very important we get it right and not necessarily try and meet deadlines that are, quite frankly, quite arbitrary. We’re working as quickly as possible.”