Should good agricultural practices for citrus be the same as those for lettuce or stone fruit?

Growers in Florida and California don’t think so, and several major grower groups have combined efforts to draft good agricultural practices, or GAPs, designed specifically for oranges, grapefruit and tangerines.

Unlike lettuce, which is grown in soil, or stone fruit, where the outer skin is consumed, citrus grows on trees, high off the ground. It also is protected from most animal life and ground contamination, and consumers don’t typically eat the peel. Hence, growers say they believe citrus merits a separate set of GAPs.

“We’ve had a long, exceptional safety record,” says Peter Chaires, director of strategic management and business development for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers.

“But that doesn’t preclude the necessity to have good, strong food safety programs and good agricultural practices.”

Florida trade representatives and practitioners who manage food safety audits have put together a three-part guidance document that they believe offers GAPs that are appropriate for citrus products.

The document includes: • Guidelines on fundamental principles to assist growers in developing individualized programs;

• A collection of resource materials and references that growers can access; and

• A set of examples, checklists and templates patterned on what other knowledgeable growers have done to address safety issues.

‘Phenomenal’ document

The document is a “phenomenal undertaking on all levels,” says Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League in Vero Beach.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in agriculture in my life,” he says.

The materials would amount to “mountains of paperwork” if they were printed out, so they’ve been made available on the Indian River Citrus website, http://bit.ly/oi8wHF, and will be distributed on CDs or flash drives, Chaires says.

The program’s creators are hopeful that their GAPs will be compatible with the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rule for the safe production, harvesting and packing of fresh produce to be released early in 2012.

That rule “will establish mandatory, science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, sorting, packing and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables,” according to the FDA’s website.

“[Growers] hope is that these [FDA] regulations will be citrus specific,” Chaires says.

Unlike the good agricultural practices issued by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1998, the new FDA guidance will be an enforceable regulation.

Members of the Florida working group compared the document they created with the United Fresh Produce GAPs Harmonization Initiative and found that “it lines up very nicely,” Chaires says.

But the document continues to evolve. The working group met in August to discuss more revisions.

“We never feel like we’re finished,” Chaires says.

Citrus is ‘unique’

As owner and president of Agricultural Resource Management Inc. in Vero Beach, Fla., and a former citrus production generation manager, Mike Ziegler says he firmly believes the citrus industry needs its own set of GAPs.

Citrus stands apart from row crops and even from other fruits, he says, “therefore, some of the considerations that may be applied to a tomato or leafy greens . . . would not necessarily apply.”

There are “night and day differences” between the controls citrus growers must implement to prevent, eliminate or reduce biological hazards to an acceptable level and those that apply to row crops or leafy greens, he says.

For one thing, lettuce and other row crops typically are packed in the field, whereas citrus is packed in a strictly regulated packinghouse, he says.

No oranges that drop to the ground are packed for consumption, and leaves on citrus trees likely would catch any bird droppings before they came in contact with fruit, Ziegler says.

“We don’t necessarily do fewer things, we just do them differently,” he says.

California’s plan

California growers have come up with their own, similar document.

Auburn-based California Citrus Quality Council has taken the lead, says president Jim Cranney, but California Citrus Mutual and the California Citrus Research Board also were involved in developing GAPs for that state’s citrus growers.

The industry has been reluctant to “really dive into programs that are not needed in order to improve food safety or to get bogged down in practices that are not relevant to citrus,” Cranney says.

California growers believe that citrus is fundamentally safe, he says, “but we’re using this opportunity to look at all the major food safety areas to make sure everything is safe and respond to regulatory challenges and demands that retailers and the marketplace are putting on our industry.”

The GAPs comply with the United Fresh harmonized document and meet the food safety standards required by most auditors and retailers, Cranney says.

Cost factor

One thing growers are particularly concerned about is the cost involved in implementing good agricultural practices.

“We want to meet basic standards, but the marketplace and regulators need to recognize there is a cost associated with it,” Cranney says.

That cost can be “huge and burdensome,” especially for small growers who may be asked to implement practices to combat risks that “in some cases don’t exist,” he says.

Like in Florida, California has created templates that growers can modify to meet their own circumstances, Cranney says. Many California growers believe there’s “a bit of overkill” when regulators try to apply the same guidelines to products that don’t have a history of food safety problems as those that do, says Don Roark, owner/president of Roark Orchards Inc. in Lindsay, Calif.

“Not to say that there isn’t a need for an auditing program that growers can do,” he says.

The GAPs that have been developed in California generally are “doable,” he says.

They’ll just require time and energy for training, documenting and doing paperwork.

Most growers agree that, “Coming up with some of our own guidelines would be [more] beneficial than having a set of standards thrust upon us that was more based on leafy greens—or one-size-fits all,” Roark says.

“Our objective hasn’t been to short circuit anything,” he says, adding, “just eliminate things that really don’t apply to us and concentrate on those that do.”