By Jerry Jackson

National food safety legislation was a shifting target as 2010 drew to a close.

But produce growers, shippers and trade groups are moving on a number of fronts to try to achieve the same goal: to make the nation’s fruits and vegetables safer and consumers more confident.

Technical issues dominated the final debate over the fate of the Food Safety Modernization Act as Congress raced to wrap up the session in late December. The contentious issues included a small-farm exemption that survived a Senate vote despite opposition from major produce associations.

Shortly before Christmas when it appeared the bill had died, the Senate approved it, sending it to the House for affirmation.

United Fresh Produce spokesman Ray Gilmer says the Washington, D.C.-based group’s members understood the rationale of protecting small businesses from the financial costs and increased oversight of the Food and Drug Administration. But the Tester Amendment, exempting small producers from on-site inspections and the mandatory recall provision, was an “unnecessary and potentially dangerous” exemption, he says.

“Restoring and bolstering consumer confidence is the end game,” Gilmer says, and the produce industry is willing to pay the price in terms of increased inspections, from either third-parties or government inspectors.

“It was quite a significant shift in the industry, to come to support a food safety bill,” he says, and exempting some producers was seen as “creating a loophole that could hurt consumer confidence.”

United Fresh Senior Vice President Robert Guenther said in a statement that the Tester amendment “weakens public health protection by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products.” Food safety, he says, “must be a universal commitment, shared by all who would grow, process and sell foods.”

The Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association also opposed the exemption. “It needs to apply across the board,” says Lisa Lochridge, spokesperson for the FFVA, which represents major growers statewide.

Food safety already in the works

Regardless of the final language, farm groups say they will move forward with industry-backed initiatives and expect that the FDA will do so as well with its own existing or expanded regulatory authority.

The FDA, for example, more than a year ago issued updated guidances to producers of tomatoes, melons and leafy greens in an effort to attempt to achieve some of the same safety oversight goals for crops deemed at higher risk for potential contamination and recalls.

Major growers and food handlers follow the guidance on GAPS—good agricultural practices—and major food retailers also mandate many of the same safety requirements for their suppliers to minimize risks of microbial contamination.

Florida has been a leader with its mandatory, state-regulated safety requirements for tomato growers—T-GAPs—enacted in 2007 by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Tomato packers follow safety rules known as T-BMPs, or Tomato best management practices.

For those tomato growers, packers and other large produce operations in Florida and other states, most of the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act are already being followed, says Keith Schneider, associate professor and food safety specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“I don’t think they will see that much of a difference” when the FDA implements the legislation, Schneider says. “What I think we will see is an implementation issue. That will be a big undertaking and the FDA will have a job on its hands” to train inspectors and auditors capable of examining a wide range of crops. “You’ll need a lot of highly trained eyes.”

With small farms exempt and large operations already following various safety programs, medium-size farms that have not yet “gotten on board” with a program of some kind will be the main ones to feel the effect of additional FDA oversight, Schneider says.

Voluntary inspection programs

As for the private sector, Western Growers Association continues to lead an industry effort to promote inspections through a voluntary program that would be overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Newport Beach, Calif.-based WGA represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona,

The proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is patterned after leafy greens programs that have been operating for a number of years in California and Arizona. Major trade associations representing growers and handlers in other states have backed the proposed national program, arguing that the science based standards for safe production and handling of produce are adaptable nationwide, with local adjustments as necessary. They also content the nationwide rules would foster more coordination between federal and state agencies.

“We feel we have a good model here,” says Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer for Ocean Mist Farms, a major leafy greens grower in California. Pezzini says that regardless of the final language in the Food Safety Modernization Act and how the FDA writes the rules, Ocean Mist Farms does not expect that it will have to make major changes in how it grows and handles lettuce and other leafy crops.

“A lot of what’s in there [the Act] we’re already doing,” Pezzini says. “I don’t think it’s going to change much of what we do.”

Practice makes perfect

Arizona produce grower C.R. Waters says the government audits that farms in Arizona and California have been undergoing for at least three years—one full, announced audit per growing season and several unannounced audits, have been good practice for FDA inspections that will be rolled out in the coming years.

“Well over 95 percent of growers are covered,” by the leafy greens inspection programs paid for by the industry in the two states, Waters says.

Western Growers, which has taken the lead in lobbying for a voluntary national inspection program for greens such as lettuce, cabbage and spinach, contends that the experience in California and Arizona shows that such a program can work, improving industry practices and achieving the same goals as a government program.

“Food safety is in everyone’s interest,” says Wendy Fink-Weber, communications director for Western Growers. “The industry can move faster than government, and make continuous improvements.”

More governmental oversight

To what degree the Modernization Act and additional FDA oversight will duplicate or eliminate the need for a national leafy greens program remains uncertain, but farm groups and industry experts say the trend is clear: more oversight and additional food safety practices are coming, and the industry needs to be proactive in shaping the outcome.

United Fresh Produce is working with the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association and other groups, for example, in an industry-led effort to develop a standardized approach to tracking produce. The goal of the Produce Traceability Initiative is to achieve electronic traceability at the case level by 2012, and that effort needs to continue, says Julia Stewart, spokesperson for the PMA.

The FDA will take at least a year or more to draft the rules, solicit comments and implement the regulations from the Food Safety Modernization Act, Stewart says, and “it isn’t in the best interests of the industry to wait,” because the Produce Traceability Initiative is already based on “globally recognized standards.”

Schneider, the University of Florida food safety specialist who focuses on training, says that one benefit of having a single set of food safety oversight rules overseen by the FDA would be the streamlining, so that everyone would follow the same guidelines.

“To many people, there are just far too many standards out there,” he says, and efforts are under way to develop uniform international safety standards. “It may help expedite development of the Global Food Safety Initiative,” Schneider says.