Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief
Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief

CROTON, Conn. — It was around 11 p.m. when I got back home from the Sept. 17-18 conference, co-sponsored by the Eastern Produce Council and the New England Produce Council.

A bowl of chili was waiting for me at home, and we watched a recorded episode of the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” before hitting the sack.

What a strange happenstance it was to see a guest on the “Daily Show” echo some of the sentiments of a presenter at the conference.

Earlier that day I had witnessed a virtuoso performance by Bob Whitaker, chief science officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Whitaker is not some mumbling, stuffy scientist. He can lay out the complex issues that make up food safety in a way I am sure growers could relate to. I am only a gardener, but I grasped the meaning of what Whitaker was saying when he said, “At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is keeping poop out of food.”

Whitaker’s message was about everyone in the supply chain taking responsibility for food safety. Too many of us, earnest though we may be, want to be told what to do. We cling to standards, audits, training logs and testing and think these tools amount to food safety protocol, he said.

Most of us want to do right, as far as food safety is concerned. However, there’s a tendency for produce business managers to accept the need to adhere to a science-based food safety plan by hiring a food safety officer and demand they tell them what to do.

They want a black-and-white answer, but science doesn’t work that way. There aren’t going to be set answers to “What do I have to do?” The scientific process is not that straightforward. It is messy. It is a process of continually asking questions.

The guest on the “Daily Show” episode we watched was Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who published a book this summer titled “Brilliant Blunders.”

In it he tells about five great scientists who changed our understanding of everything but who also made colossal mistakes. Livio’s words echoed Whitaker’s comments.

“There is this misconception that scientific progress is some sort of a direct march to the truth. Nothing really can be further from the truth,” Livio said.

“Scientific progress goes in a zigzag path. Lots of blind alleys. Lots of false starts.”

That is a key underpinning to Whitaker’s call to use audits and other tools to determine the next actions to take, to focus on the steps required to keep the food supply safe.

It also underpins the arguments Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology for PMA, said later that morning while laying out PMA’s concerns about proposed rules for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Gorny talked about regulatory and consulting audits in connection with the third-party accreditation rule for importers, one of the proposed rules for implementing the food safety act.

A regulatory audit is done to determine if the facility meets FDA requirements. Those results must be reported to FDA.

A consulting audit is for a business to look at how it complies with FDA rules and takes a wider view. FDA isn’t notified unless there is a major problem. That sounds reasonable, and it has the pleasing feel of putting the hammer down.

However, what constitutes a major problem? Also, this rule could stifle an importing company doing the right thing and using an audit to improve its system.

After all, we know things go wrong and science is messy.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.