Given the failure of third-party audits to pinpoint potential food safety problems in recent cases involving German sprouts, Georgia peanuts and Colorado cantaloupe, some primary handlers of produce might be considering sending in their own teams to inspect suppliers.
“I am hearing from a few of the larger produce organizations (first handlers) is that is what they are going back to,” said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
Gombas He said he was unaware of foodservice and retail buyers who are thinking of doing the same. “(Retailers) would need an army,” he said.
However, Gombas said some primary handlers of produce are considering it.
“They are not trusting the third-party audits and they are going out and doing their own inspections as well to verify if the third-party (inspectors) are doing a good job,” Gombas said.
In light of recent outbreaks, some growers question the value of audits, said Chris Schlect, president of the of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. Gombas said the services auditors offer vary greatly — one of the biggest issues to resolve in the industry.
With 140,000 farms in the country, finding the right number of people knowledgeable about food safety is a tall task, Gombas said.
While the FDA is charged with developing a process to accredit third-party auditors in foreign countries under the new Food Safety Modernizaton Act, Gombas predicts FDA will find it hard to rely on third-party audits.
“Everyone is looking for FDA to come up with a solution, but I don’t know if they have any better answers than we do,” he said.
He noted the United Fresh effort to harmonize Good Agricultural Practices did not address third-party auditor certification.
“We knew that the harmonzied standard was a tough enough goal to achieve.”
The Global Food Safety Initiative which begin in 2000 and was designed to harmonize audit standards in Europe — still hasn’t solved that issue.
Roy Costa, president of third-party auditing company Environ Health Associates Inc., Deland, Fla., said some auditors aren’t prepared for the range of food facilities they inspect, whether it is a bakery, seafood facilities, a meat processing plant or packinghouse for fresh fruits and vegetables.
“The auditors are required to wear all these different hats,” he said.
Unfortunately, because of the demand (for services), the auditor may not have the exact industry knowledge they need to look at the commodity they are looking at.