NAPLES, Fla. — For the past several years, many grower-packer-shippers have suffered from audit fatigue, in extreme cases going through five food safety audits annually to satisfy separate customers.

Florida tomato industry seeks single food safety auditBut Reggie Brown said he believes the tomato industry is close to a cure — a single harmonized audit that will satisfy Florida requirements — and buyers, including quick-serve restaurants.

“This is an effort to create a harmonized standard audit system that could work for all commodities and would be the same for all commodities,” said Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange.

If all goes as hoped, he said the GlobalGAP Food Safety Audit for North America could be in place before the start of the Florida tomato season in October.

The lone hurdle is benchmarking the proposed audit against Global Food Safety Initiative standards, said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

The process involves comparing the two systems to ensure the proposal meets GFSI food safety minimum requirements.

In discussions with 24 large customers, Gombas said none opposed to the proposed harmonized audit.

He and Brown provided details at the 2012 Tomato Food Safety Workshop, Sept. 4, part of Florida’s annual Joint Tomato Conference.

Under state legislation passed in September 2007, Florida tomato growers and packers must pass annual food safety audits by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspectors.

The audits are part of state-mandated tomato food safety programs, known as T-GAPs — tomato good agricultural practices × for growers and T-BMPs — tomato best management practices for packers.

Brown said the state’s tomato food safety requirements were incorporated into the proposed harmonized audit standards.

“The audit is not very different than what you’ve been seeing under the tomato metrics,” he said. “Fundamentally, the questions are all the same.”

Some quick-serve restaurants — most notably Subway — require the audit be conducted by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-credentialed inspector, Brown said.

As a result, many state inspectors have obtained the necessary USDA authorizations.

Wal-Mart officials have indicated they will accept a harmonized audit if it meets GFSI standards, he said.

For the single audit plan to be implemented, Brown said Florida state ag inspectors would have to be trained and certified to meet GFSI requirements.

“We’ve been working with the state of Florida, and they’re preparing themselves to be able to provide audits that will, to my knowledge, meet all of the demands of the customer base that are out there with a single audit,” he said.

A new sliding fee structure will reflect various levels, Brown said, allowing grower and packers to choose based on customer requirements.

“It’s been a long time coming and it will probably be a bit buggy for the first cycle of this process, but it’s achievable,” he said.

Wes Roan, food safety quality control manager for Immokalee, Fla.-based Lipman, praised the efforts.

“Everyone would love to have one audit, and I hope that can be a reality,” Roan said.

But he said he had concerns whether some buyers would become picky about the entity conducting the audit.