LAS VEGAS — If questions lead to answers, the United Fresh Produce Association's Global Conference on Food Safety Standards should move the industry closer to harmonization of food safety systems and audits.

Up to 300 people attended the April 24-25 event that followed the United Fresh convention, and they asked many questions about the future direction of third party auditors, international certification schemes and whether harmonization of food safety standards might lead to less need for multiple audits.

United Fresh food safety conference draws broad interest

The event reflected a determination by industry leaders to better manage the issue of unnecessary costs associated with multiple food safety audits, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh, Washington, D.C.

"For the past year, we've listened to the discussions grow regarding audit harmonization and so it became necessary to have a meeting like this," he said. "Before we can make changes, before we can make improvements, we have to start with the facts."

For that reason, Gombas said he was glad that 16 different food safety related organizations participated and he said the event will build momentum toward further work on the issue.

Because 91% of food safety audit standards are the same, Gombas said international harmonization of standards holds some promise in reducing unnecessary audits.

"I'm pretty sure our leaders are going to tell us that we need to start putting together task forces and meetings to start problem solving this issue, from moving past the strategic questions to the strategic answers," Gombas said.

A United Fresh task force is working on a report to offer a convenient matrix or comparison between food safety audit standards, he said.

During a question and answer session, Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita Brands International, Franklin, Park, Ill., asked if the produce industry should create one standard, rather than try to harmonize multiple standards.

"We are harmonizing standards, 95% of which are the same. My question is why don't we take the 95% that are the same and make a standard?"

Burness said resources are being wasted because auditors must be trained and evaluated for various standards.

Some audience members suggested retailers and foodservice operators that use food safety standards to differentiate their companies foster redundant audits. What's more, the vested interest of certifiers and private third party auditors to trumpet their proprietary audits also hamstrings standardization.

During a breakout discussion, Valerie Hannig, Newark-Del.-based food safety and government relations administrator for The Oppenheimer Group, said a common concern is audit inconsistency.

"But every auditing company assured us that their auditors are well-trained, they are shadowed and they have very good quality programs to assure consistency," he said. "Do they just say that or is it really happening?"

Another suggested that an FDA or USDA inspector might provide more consistency because there would be less of an opportunity for personal or company agendas to get in the way of the audit. However, yet another attendee said that government inspectors are not immune from inconsistency.

The role of buyers in determining what is expected was roundly discussed.

One retailer said he believes retailers are careful to avoid selling produce based on food safety. Food safety demands on suppliers, he said, are driven by the need to show due diligence about food safety.