(June 14) To Ron Budd’s way of thinking, a government seal of approval on the company’s repacking operations is a no-lose proposition.

“By going with the USDA, we felt we couldn’t go wrong,” he said.

Budd, owner of Gloucester County Packing Co. Inc., Woodbury, N.J., is one of a relatively few grower-shipper-packers who have been certified by the Fresh Produce Audit Verification Program.

State departments of agriculture, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistance, are developing an audit-based program that verifies grower-packer adherence to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

Under the audit program, in pilot status since October, Federal-State Inspection Service personnel review a participating company’s facility and agronomic practices, along with its documented procedures, to help determine whether good agricultural practices and good handling practices are maintained.

70% MINIMUM SCORE

The program grades participants on a pass-fail basis with a 70% minimum score required to pass, said Leanne Skelton, acting chief of the fresh products branch for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

She said the program has resulted in 13 certifications in California, six in Oregon and one in New Jersey. Inspectors have been trained for the program in those states and Arizona.

Budd said his New Jersey firm, a co-packer for Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., and repacker of potatoes and onions from growing regions throughout the U.S., had been receiving requests from retail customers for a food safety audit.

The retailers didn’t give specific deadlines for implementing a food safety program, he said, but the availability of inspectors based in New Jersey to conduct the audit was a plus.

While audit charges for the government program were similar to those for private audit companies, he said the lack of big charges for travel were a plus for the USDA. He said inspectors made two visits to his company’s facilities in the course of the annual audit and were very thorough.

“Our customers are happy that it is implemented and the results are posted on the Web site,” he said.

TRAINING INSPECTORS

Skelton said the pilot program allows the USDA to work out bugs in the program and allows additional states the chance to train shipping point inspectors.

Growers can choose the scope of the audit performed to include a farm review, field harvest and field packing. The packinghouse audit can include storage, transportation and traceback.

Skelton said the program doesn’t get into biosecurity issues now, though that could be a plug-in component on future audits

All inspection programs are funded by user fees. Typical audits take between five and six hours, she said. Audit costs vary by state; California’s rate, for example is $65 per hour.

WAY TO ADD VALUE

Skelton said the program can add value to the operations of growers, shippers and packers by demonstrating adherence to FDA guidelines on minimizing microbial risk. Skelton said some retailers, including Albertson’s Inc., Boise, Idaho, have told the USDA the program meets their needs.

“We’re working on a strategy to talk to additional retailers,” she said.

Skelton said they have had some indication that some retailers would like to see a higher minimum grade than 70%.

Skelton said the program is not intended to be the answer for all operations, noting that some may feel comfortable with a private auditor.

“It doesn’t guarantee safe food or food safety; what we do is demonstrate their adherence to the FDA guidance document on microbial hazards,” Skelton said.

Brian Mansfield, director of business development for PrimusLabs.com, Santa Maria, Calif., said PrimusLabs.com views the USDA field audits as just another competitive factor in the industry.

“I think (the USDA) will have to look for recognition (from buyers) to pick up more customers,” he said. Even with USDA involvement in beef packing inspections, for example, he said private company audits are often preferred as a check.

In addition, he said the cost of USDA audits is similar to what PrimusLabs.com charges.

He said a field audit by PrimusLabs.com can range from $450-550, which he said is similar to the cost of the USDA audit, depending on the hours billed and travel time for the USDA inspectors.

ABLE TO COMPETE

“They are not the low cost leaders,” he said. As to competing with government, he noted that companies like UPS and FedEx have been able to compete effectively with the U.S. Postal Service.

Bruce Peterson, vice president and general merchandise manager for perishables of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said he wasn’t familiar with the USDA’s pilot program. However, in general, he said, all suppliers to Wal-Mart would be interested to know if they are not living up to good agricultural practices.

“If there is any operation that is failing in that regard, I’m sure they would want to know,” he said.

On the other hand, Peterson said, he wouldn’t necessarily think less of a company if it didn’t get a particular audit, government or otherwise.

No matter how they approach the issue, Peterson said growers, shippers, retailers and processors recognize the responsibility they hold to the consumer in respect to food safety.