If there ever was a road to comprehensive sustainability standards to be codified for the produce industry, it appears to be a dead end.

“We’ve not seen a sustainability certification framework that can fairly measure the many ways that sustainability can be achieved,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

For now, and perhaps well into the future, standards remain the purview of each produce supplier and its customers, Gilmer said.

“Of course, audits, which can be required by buyers or other business partners, can be seen as a form of certifying an operation as sustainable,” he said.

No one seems to know whether one set of standards will become reality, said Eric Halverson, executive vice president of technology for Black Gold Farms, a Grand Forks N.D.-based potato grower-shipper.

“I don’t know if that’s where the whole sustainability discussion is going to go. Every year is so different,” he said.

Sustainability standards tend to fall into place, anyway, he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to mean ‘I’m more sustainable than others.’ We do things that are GlobalG.A.P.-certified and what that does is certify that we’re doing the best we can given the situation we’re in,” he said.

Daniela Ferro, spokeswoman for Kingsville, Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce Ltd., agreed sustainability is achieved through various certification systems that already are in place.

Ferro said Mastronardi Produce has been non-GMO certified, two of its facilities are certified organic handlers, and, most recently, the company started offering Fair Trade-certified products.

For Black Gold, sustainability goals mean trying to get the most out of the crop with the least amount of inputs, Halverson said.

“If that’s the way certification is going to go, it’s not going to go towards ‘I have less of a carbon footprint than the next guy,’” Halverson said.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., said auditors likely will lead the way, if a certification system is achievable.

“There’s been a pathway by a number of third parties to try and establish that, but there’s been some apprehension,” he said.

There’s a couple of reasons for that, said Pepperl, who has served on United Fresh’s sustainability committee.

“One is third-party is big business, and the other is trying to create more of a level playing field and understand what it really is,” he said.

United Fresh’s sustainability committee published a self-audit system, which allowed a company to determine how successful it was on a “pathway to sustainability,” Pepperl said.

Sustainability is a quantifiable concept, he said.

It’s also useful to see how a company is measuring up in social, as well as economic, categories of sustainability practices, Pepperl said.

“You can’t manage it if you don’t measure it,” he said.

Companies should be aware of the latest measures being taken across the industry, said Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation with Salinas, Calif.-based Mann Packing.

“Currently we’re working with industry associations, such as United Fresh and its sustainability task force, to keep abreast of any certification proposals,” Nucci said.

The industry has proven competent in taking care of its sustainability issues without outside pressure, Nucci said, citing the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement as an example.

“We’re also participating in the Stewardship Index for Sustainability by testing different field operation metrics and reporting back on our successes and challenges,” she said.