MAITLAND, Fla. — Fresh tomato supply chain leaders are sharpening food safety programs and auditing protocols with a goal of cutting foodborne illnesses linked to their product.

Tomato industry leaders discuss 'audit fatigue' during summitMembers of the industry representing Florida, California and other states are meeting to tackle issues dealing with growing and distribution practices. The Feb. 1-2 meeting at the Florida Tomato Committee and Florida Tomato Exchange headquarters comes as the entire produce industry awaits a Food and Drug Administration produce safety rule.

Audit fatigue, or numerous audits grower-shippers’ customers often require, remained central in discussions.

“How many standards can you audit to?” asked Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto. “Audit fatigue within our group at all levels is unbelievable. We have customers coming behind other customers checking the other audits because they each have their own specs.

Ed Beckman, president of the Certified Greenhouse Vegetable Producers Association of North America, Fresno, Calif., said the debate should be about how tomato food safety metrics reflect science. Beckman, until recently president of Fresno, Calif.-based California Tomato Growers, said the industry seeks collaboration with the FDA and the U.S, Department of Agriculture throughout the audit process.

“This is not growers and customers sitting in a room and defining what our future is,” Beckman said. “We don’t simply pull a number out of the air and throw it in that document and say it’s good.

“... This about bringing people together, sharing ideas, sharing our frustrations with existing audits, auditing and trying to come back with a solution that meets everyone’s needs in a single audit that is based on science.”

Tomato industry leaders discuss 'audit fatigue' during summitMichelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the FDA, discussed the produce safety rule and how it should affect the fresh produce industry.

Smith said the final leg of the rule remains down the road, and may allow for three months of comment — longer than other agency rulemaking.

“What you’re doing is important,” Smith said. “The other part of our process is to recognize what people are currently doing and take that into consideration when thinking about the kinds of requirements we want to propose.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to say what the rules will look like,” she said. “A number of groups like the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement have committed down the road to look at their provisions and reconcile when necessary with the rule when finalized. What you are doing is a great example of helping to move things forward.”

During the meetings, growers and buyers discussed customer expectations, additions to the standards and issues such as commingling at repacking operations.