The Technical Working Group of the Produce GAPs Harmonization Initiative met June 17-18 in Houston, beginning the process of reviewing and revising its draft line by line.

The working group, which produced a draft of the new food safety standard on May 13 after just five meetings, compiled 13 GAP standards and then selected which wording best met the intention of a harmonized standard that will be applicable to the widest range of commodities, regions, production practices and size operations.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and a member of the working group, said this is just the beginning.

“Now the hard part starts,” Gombas said June 4. “The devil’s in the details, and we have to make sure that the actual wording provides for maximum flexibility and minimum opportunity for misunderstanding.”
The technical working group will meet again July 13-14 in San Jose, Calif., and Aug. 25-26 in Philadelphia before a joint meeting with the initiative’s steering committee Sept. 13 in Washington, D.C.

“The steering committee asked for the standard to be delivered by Oct. 1,” Gombas said, “and we are on track to deliver a final draft on time.”

The joint meeting is the day before United’s Public Policy Conference begins, and the technical group intends to sign off on the final draft at that time, Gombas said.

General manager Patrick Pimentel said NSF Davis Fresh, Watsonville, Calif., supports the development of the audit standard, but the food safety solutions provider and others in the industry still have questions and concerns:

  • Who will own, maintain and update the standard and audit template?

  • Who will regulate and enforce policies governing the standard?

  • Who will be able to audit against the standard?

  • Who will be responsible for the certification, training and calibration of auditors?

  • Will buyers recognize and accept the standard?

  • Will the standard be benchmarked under the Global Food Safety Initiative?

Gombas said that while the technical group is near the end of its work, there is still a long way to go in the overall process. When the final draft is completed, it will be up to the steering committee to accept it, or not.

The steering committee has commissioned an operations committee, which will establish the policies and procedures for managing and sustaining the standard.

“No question that a harmonized standard is only the first step to reducing audit burden,” Gombas said.

“That will only harmonize the food safety expectations during an audit. The second, and much more difficult step, will be to harmonize the audit process: how auditors are trained and calibrated in the use of the standard, how they will assess and interpret compliance with food safety expectations at the audited operation, and how they will report it.”

Gombas said having a single audit standard will be a big first step, but harmonizing the audit process to an extent that any buyer will accept any auditor’s assessment is an issue the entire food industry is struggling with.

“All the audits can be harmonized,” said Wil Sumner, director of agricultural testing and certification for Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Systems.

“The problem is that retailers have pet companies they’ll accept. A grower might still have to do two or three audits to satisfy retailers. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Valerie Hannig, food safety and government regulations administrator for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, and a member of the technical working group, said there needs to be educational outreach to retailers so they’re comfortable accepting various audits. 

“Only then will the burden and costs of growers needing multiple audits will be reduced,” she said.

“We need to make food safety easier and less costly for suppliers to implement, and the best way to achieve that is eliminate redundant audits.

Having a single food safety program allows staff to have greater focus on the specific needs of one audit, as opposed to being overwhelmed with sometimes conflicting requirements of multiple audits.”

Sumner said the cost of individual audits are increasing for some companies. During the shift from individual companies’ GAP/GMP audits toward GFSI and HACCP audits, many auditing companies are adding modules for things like labor, in-house testing and risk assessment.

“This means the audits are going from a typical one-day audit to a two-day audit, costing twice as much,” he said.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the Dimare Co., Homestead, Fla., said cost savings will vary, but for a company like his — which has multiple farms, packinghouses and repacking operations — the savings associated with reducing redundant audits could be significant.

Those cost savings will come at the expense of auditing companies, which will have less auditing to do if redundancies are eliminated.

Pimentel said attrition is likely among third-party auditors.

“However, as the industry evolves to higher audit standards and auditor requirements, companies that are science based — having auditors that possess strong technical expertise, and industry knowledge and experience — will be best positioned to help their clients,” he said.

Despite the fact that standardization could hurt their bottom line, some third-party auditors have been pushing for standardization for years.

Sumner said a group of auditors, including SCS, Davis Fresh and Silliker Inc., got together in 2002 with the intention of creating an accreditation process to strengthen audits and criteria for auditors, but an anti-trust lawsuit put a stop to that effort.

The companies then approached the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Food Technologists and the Agricultural and Food Technology Alliance with hopes that one of the three entities would take on the responsibility of overseeing an industry standard, but none would.

“We’ve always been advocates of trying to standardize audits and raise the bar for auditors,” Sumner said.

Audit standardization could make it more difficult for third-party companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors, but Sumner said they can still do that through other services. SCS, for example, also offers training, certification and testing.

“We try to bundle services,” he said.

DiMare also said he expects reduced business for auditors, but the grower-shipper said that was beside the point.

“This shouldn’t be about the audit companies, or which audit company is better than the next,” he said.

“This is about standardizing the industry, so we are all adhering to and being measured by the same standards, and cutting unnecessary costs.”