The California citrus industry is pushing back against what it sees as excessive audits and meddling by retailers.

“While we do have an obligation to ensure our product is always safe, citrus doesn’t believe it has the same level of food safety risks as other commodities,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

Nelsen said the industry favors a standardized third-party audit, conducted, perhaps, by an arm of government.

“What we have now is a private sector cottage industry that’s established itself by marketing him or herself to a retailer,” he said. “Each one of our shippers has to go through two to four different audits to satisfy their customer base. That adds $75,000 to $100,000 annually.”

Neil Galone, vice president sales and marketing for Booth Ranches, Orange Cove, Calif., agrees that a common set of safety standards is needed, and that having three to five different organizations visiting his operation, each one looking at the same thing, is a waste of money and resources.

Tom Wollenman, chairman of California Citrus Mutual and general manager of LoBue Citrus Inc., Lindsay, Calif., said the citrus industry is working with a number of other produce trade organizations to organize and simplify the audit process.

“We will be successful,” he said, “but it will probably take two more years.”

The latest indignity, according to Nelsen, is the request by large retailers in the past few months for a social contract with packinghouses.

“Retailers want to come in and interview our people to know if employees are happy,” he said.

“They want to look at our payroll records to determine if we’re paying them, and they want to check out the work environment, and ensure all our health signs are posted,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a request to look at personnel files. Naturally we’re pushing back on this.”

Wollenman said employment issues are already regulated by county, state and federal laws, and the industry is complying with them.

“Retailers should be more concerned about working conditions in China,” Wollenman said, “or the conditions of our brothers and sisters in Mexico.”

Nelsen said a great-looking produce department is the best way retailers can distinguish themselves and attract more customers.

“When our customers attack us, they start to kill the partnership,” he said.

“We can help them differentiate themselves in the market and they should use our expertise, instead of bashing us to try and ingratiate themselves to more customers.”

Wollenman said the industry is pushing back in a diplomatic manner so as not to alienate retailers.

“If we all try to operate independently, we will get picked off one by one,” he said. “If you stick together, you generally have a higher degree of success.”