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.
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.
Costa said the third-party auditing industry needs more inspectors with a broad scientific background, in addition to possessing industry specific knowledge when that is needed.
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said the marketing agreement approach works for the leafy greens industry.
“We use a government auditor — truly an independent auditor — and we have the requirement that any findings get fixed and we verify that through audit as well,” he said.
Gombas said the government inspection is important to leafy greens marketers.
“Coming off the tragic (E. coli in spinach) outbreak we had in 2006, the industry wanted government involvement and government oversight,” he said. “The industry itself wanted to bring in government auditors because they felt like it was going to give it credibility, provide the transparent process as well as the true independence they were looking for.”
All members of the agreement are subject to several audits per year, including one unannounced audit per year. With FDA writing produce safety regulations, Horsfall said there should be a way to create a public-private partnership between government inspectors and third-party auditors.
“We’ve got to find ways to link this all together so we don’t end up with layer upon layer of duplicative audits and inspections and rules,” he said.
Horsfall said he does not see much variability between individual government auditors who inspect leafy greens producers, in large part because the industry uses the same core group of inspectors for several years.
Horsfall said most of the major buyers in the country do require their leafy greens suppliers in California to be certified by the LGMA, but many still have additional requirements beyond that.
“We’re trying to work within the system see if we can’t answer all those needs,” he said.”We can drive costs out of the system if we can get more widespread acceptance of the LGMA certification.”