(Jan. 15, 10:31 a.m.) SAVANNAH, Ga. — All fresh produce commodities remain vulnerable to being implicated in an outbreak without evidence.

Southeastern growers heard how they can avoid becoming a casualty in such outbreaks and ways they can work to limit such acts from occurring during the 2009 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference Jan. 8-12 at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

Numerous sessions covered how growers can institute safety procedures at the farm and packinghouse levels and what industry leaders are doing to better communicate with investigatory agencies in future outbreaks.

In a discussion of last summer’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, Arthur Liang, the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control’s food safety office director, acknowledged improvements need to be made in how the agencies handle future outbreak investigations.

Liang said the CDC regularly meets with Food and Drug Administration leaders to address the issue and that the agencies have exchanged ambassadors that are in each agency’s outbreak meeting rooms.

“The CDC and public health people felt they could have done a lot better in communication and coordination,” he said. “Yes, we will do better. Things are getting better but we have more to do.”

Jim Corby, vice president of produce merchandising for Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion LLC, discussed how his stores undergo internal and third-party audits twice a quarter. He said the retailer is involved in the produce traceability initiative.

“The PLU (price look-up) labels can be looked at as the retailer forced the growers’ hands a little on that,” Corby said. “This (traceability) won’t happen that way. This will have to be an effort on both parts all the way through the whole supply chain if it’s going to work. It will really require some team effort to get this all ready to the store level.”

At the convention’s keynote forum, Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland, discussed how growers can help prevent a food safety crisis from striking them.

Brown noted how Georgia tomato growers suffered catastrophic losses. He talked about how Florida tomato industry leaders developed the country’s first and only mandatory state food safety program.

“We are advocates of a national standard,” Brown said. “Anyone growing is potentially a weak link if they’re not growing correctly. If you don’t do food safety 24/7 every day, it doesn’t get done and entire industries will tumble down. For the industry to not be engaged in their own future in developing programs that truly address the risks that are real and address them in a practical and reasonable manner, we are doing ourselves a disservice.”

Stenzel said the industry needs to work closer with federal officials during outbreak investigations.

“What we are doing as a produce industry is working as hard as we can to make sure our produce is not contaminated,” Stenzel said. “But sometimes lightning strikes. What we learned this summer was the combination of local, state and federal governments were not prepared to fight that fire nearly as well as they should be.

“There was extremely inadequate crisis preparation with many local and state governments. As we look at this in hindsight, the national industry is of the opinion that we have not spent enough time fighting the forest fires.”

In a session on Global GAP, John Duval, technical services manager with SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., said most audits involve things growers normally do. The biggest problem, he said, is keeping accurate and updated records.

“If there’s any problem on your farm that you miss before your audit, that’s the one thing an auditor will find,” Duval said. “A calm and humble attitude during the audit will make things go smoother.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, LaGrange, which sponsored the conference with the South Carolina Peach Council, said attendance increased from 2,020 growers and suppliers last year to this year’s 2,100, a 4% increase.

The conference also featured the Southeastern Peach Convention, and grower-oriented conferences covering vegetables, Vidalia onions, watermelons, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, muscadines and organic production.