WASHINGTON, D.C. — The produce safety audit system is out of control and something needs to be done about it, Tom Stenzel told the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee.

Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said there is substantial industry support for the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative since the average grower faces about 10 food safety audits every year.

Both shippers and buyers are beginning to see that costs associated with redundant audits aren’t offset with greater food safety results or supply chain efficiencies, he said.

“We are making progress, we are moving in the right direction,” he said March 31.

Audit fatigue has caused growers to think about passing tests rather than creating a culture of food safety, Stenzel said.

Stenzel said numerous audits within the industry have been caused, in part, by the lack of a clear standard for a government approved audit for good agricultural practices.

A common audit standard by the government could be helpful to the trade as the initiative seeks to establish a harmonized food safety audit, Stenzel said.

“It would be very helpful for the agency to set the standard; a common audit standard would make a lot of sense,” Stenzel told the committee.

The lack of federal oversight has created a competitive environment for audit companies marketing their services to the trade. What’s more, he said foodborne illness outbreaks have created more caution among lawyers representing chain stores.

“If I am a lawyer, if 100 yards away from a cattle operation is good, then 200 yards is better,” Stenzel said.

Stenzel said the board-based initiative — which is supported by United Fresh, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association and other grower-shipper organizations — has found that the among the 10 or 15 public and private company audits offered for good agricultural practices, 90% of their content is virtually identical.

Even so, Stenzel said there are challenges to complete the initiative by its October goal. Members of the technical working group for the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative have met several times and will meet again at the United Fresh conference and expo April 20-23 in Las Vegas.

The group is working at harmonizing all private company audits into a globally recognized food safety audit.

“The ultimate goal is get something that follows the FDA guidelines for produce safety,” Stenzel said.

In the end, the success or failure of the effort may depend on acceptance of the concept by buyers.

“It may come down to business decisions of retailers and foodservice companies, whether or not they will agree and accept a common audit,” Stenzel said.

Committee members also asked Stenzel who would own the audit standard and be responsible to make changes to it when science would warrant. Stenzel aid the concept has been for the standard to be open to the public and available to all, and said the effort has not identified who would own the standard and keep it current.

Another question addressed how individual auditors would be certified and Stenzel said that has not been determined.

Stenzel: produce safety audits need oversight