(Jan. 14, 12:31 p.m..) There is a new standard for food safety and traceability, and the fresh produce industry is competing to meet higher foodservice, retailer and ultimately, consumer demands highlighted by last summer’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak.

However, with no universally accepted set of standards in areas from third-party audits to traceability technology, the industry is also scrambling to unite and implement science-based practices without breaking the bank.

Programs like the Produce Traceability Initiative and adaptation of a standard for case labeling are helping to move the industry toward faster traceability that would prevent the spread of an outbreak and save the industry millions of dollars during a scare.

In the area of third-party audits, growers are struggling in a tough economy to comply with multiple required food safety certifications from customers that are often based on a nontransparent set of standards and dubious science.

For its part, the FDA has submitted requests for comments that would create a guideline for third-party audits; is revising its “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables;” and groups like the Center for Produce Safety and Center for Food Systems Safety & Security are targeting research projects to provide better support for science-based best practices in food safety.

“There is a new standard for fresh produce, and there is no question there are enough problems that its now on the minds of consumers,” said Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Systems Safety & Security, College Park, Md. “The nutritional message has gotten out to them that fresh fruit and vegetables are a good thing to have, so certainly they are in a quandary now.”

Randy Bailey, president of Bailey Farms, Oxford, N.C., said the cost of audits, food safety managers and procedures and all the products and technologies that go with them are being absorbed by growers.

“It’s the minimum cost of doing business,” he said. “The retailer may choose you over somebody who doesn’t have it. As more people get it, it becomes a more competitive thing.”

Speaking after returning from a good agricultural practices training session for local growers, Bill Pool, manager of produce agricultural practices and regulations at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., agreed.

“Every time that there’s a health outbreak linked to produce it really hurts that positive message about produce,” he said. “We’re requiring growers to provide us with a third-party GAP audit, and if they can’t, we’re looking very closely at our business relationship with them and whether or not it should continue.”

New standards, new research

“I think food safety has come to the top,” said Bonnie Fernandez, director of the Center for Produce Safety, Davis, Calif. “The industry is just being proactive that way to get in and address this.”

Fernandez said thanks to donations and partnerships, the center will be funding close to $2 million worth of research projects by mid-2009 as well as updating its searchable database with “layperson abstracts” to scientific documents.

Jaime Weisinger, director of public relations for Custom Pak, Immokalee, Fla., a vertically integrated produce supplier, believes customers are driving the evolution of food safety programs.

“There are some end-users, so to speak, restaurants or retailers that do come up with unreasonable things that are not feasible, and we work with those people to come up with alternatives,” he said. “The costs put an extra burden on us, but the costs outweigh the potential disaster.”

Weisinger said increasingly customers want to know how a product is handled every step of the way, and since his company has provided that for more than eight years, this summer’s unfortunate salmonella outbreak boosted business for Custom Pak.

“They want to know how was it handled form the second it was planted, not just where it was grown,” he said. “It’s more than traceability. They want to know how is it handled, how is it washed, what is the pathogen reduction.”

Reflecting the new call for food safety investment, he said, “The fact that we have invested so much in our food safety program has opened up doors for us.”

Several retailers and associations are also considering irradiation as a strong intervention step for reducing pathogens and increasing shelf life.

“We think that irradiation has got wonderful potential in terms of another barrier or hurdle that enhances food safety and we’ve talked to suppliers and have expressed our interests,” Pool said. “But there’s this whole logistics issue that is close to a transport route.”

Industrywide efforts

Pool said beyond intervention steps, Wegmans and many others are members of the Produce Traceability Initiative. Announced last October, the group’s action plan calls for ways to streamline the traceability process and case-level traceability across the industry by 2012.

“I think any thing that we can do as an industry to help identify and isolate product in the event of a problem is to our benefit,” Pool said. “It helps ensure consumer confidence.”

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., one of the initiative’s sponsoring associations, said the faster you can get through an outbreak, the safer the U.S. consumer and the better it is for the companies involved.

“You don’t want to be involved in an outbreak for weeks. You want to know immediately so you can pull that product off the shelf,” he said.

At October’s Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit convention in Orlando, Fla., several companies brought technological solutions to the fore that met PTI’s standards and provide cost-saving added value.

“There’s a tremendous need for visibility and traceability in the produce industry, however, once the technology is out there, what additional uses can it have?” asked Jeff Tazelaar, RFID product manager for Lowry Computer Products, Brighton, Mich.

Tazelaar said once the produce industry standardized on GS1 for product coding, it made sense for Lowry to enter the market of technological solutions that provide visibility of movement of goods through the supply chain with a food safety module that has additional functions like digital food safety forms.

Gombas said though the PTI has just gotten started, 30 companies have endorsed the action plan, including C.H. Robinson, Driscoll’s, Food Lion, Fresh Express and H-E-B.

“One of the weaknesses we have in the produce industry is traceability records are not believed to be reliable. That’s what the FDA told us,” Gombas said, explaining that if the industry gets reliable records, companies that are not involved in an outbreak will be able to quickly clear their names from an investigation and prevent a commoditywide shutdown.

Food safety experts at the FDA also say they are working hard to strengthen communication with the industry, including information sharing on a daily basis during a potential outbreak.

The FDA also said its “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” will be revised for the first time in 10 years because of the many advances in knowledge and information that have taken place in the industry.

FDA requested comments in September and is now reviewing them to make changes to the guide, which is a voluntary, science-based document.

FDA also recently established the Western Center of Excellence at the campus of the University of California-Davis to collect data to measure the effectiveness of current controls designed to prevent product contamination.

The data gathered will be used to develop scientifically validated best practices for the industry.