(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 15) Striving to harmonize standards and audits for good agricultural practices and achieve buy-in from the entire supply chain, a group of 50 produce industry leaders have begun work on the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative.

A steering committee for the group, which met for the first time in Atlanta on Sept. 22, is chaired by Brian Kocher, president of Chiquita Brands International, Cincinnati, according to a news release from Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

The genesis for the group began with widespread interest in harmonizing food safety audits voiced by industry members who attended the Global Conference on Produce Food Safety Standards, held in conjunction with April’s United Fresh Produce Association convention, according to the release.

“This effort addresses one of our most important challenges — the proliferation of audits and standards that do nothing to improve overall food safety yet contribute to duplication, inefficiency and add unnecessary costs to consumers,” Kocher said in the release.  “Tackling that challenge will require the participation of the industry as a whole, and I’m excited about the initial participation thus far.”

At its meeting in Atlanta, the steering committee members agreed on a goal where one audit by any credible third party can be acceptable to all buyers, Kocher said in the release.

The release said a broad technical working group will be convened. The working group will be led by David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for United Fresh, and Suresh Decosta, manager of quality systems for McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.,

The technical working group — expected to meet in November — will be open to all industry members interested in the effort to develop harmonized GAP standards, the United Fresh release said.

The working group will develop what the news release called a “consensus based harmonized GAP standard” for the steering committee to review. The steering committee has 17-grower-shipper-processors, 11 foodservice-related industry leaders, 13 retailers and 14 association staff.

“We’re supportive of the goal of bringing some kind of commonality to the standards currently out there and reduce the audit burden for some of our grower-shipper members,” said steering committee member Chris Valadez, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, Fresno, Calif.

Valadez said that about 90% of audits performed today are similar, and the thought is that there could be a process that would streamline or standardize those audits to reduce expenses.

“I think this effort needs to have the support of the grower-shipper, the retailer and the audit provider community,” he said.