“Redundancy” is a four-letter word in the produce industry, where food safety audits are concerned.

A shipper may have several food safety audits each year, each varying according to the dictates of a particular customer.

A question arises: Why not have one comprehensive audit?

There are no simple answers, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications with the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“One theory might be in the absence of modern food-safety regulations, these private standards have been borne out of necessity,” he said.

Federal food-safety rules may clear up the matter, he said.

“It might be, once these new rules take effect and become law of the land, the need of these separate standards might be diminished,” he said.

That’s the industry’s hope, he said.

“These private audits have cropped up from individual buyers in an effort to ensure their product is safe, as well as differentiate their product from their competitors’ products,” he said.

When rules from the Food and Drug Administration are finalized, the confusion could clear up, Gilmer said.

“But we won’t know for sure until it happens,” he said.

It may be that the new rules may come up with at least a partial solution, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director with Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals LLC.

“Perhaps the overlap can be reduced in the future with the FDA accepting independent audits with occasional overviews of third-party audits,” she said.

Multiple audits are a nagging issue, said Don Edgar, operations manager with Princeton, Fla.-based grower-shipper-packer New Limeco LLC.

“It’s probably not something that industry right about now is prepared to manage,” he said.

Redundancy knows no national boundaries, said Richard Lee, compliance coordinator with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association in Leamington.

Multiple audits aren’t going away anytime soon, he said.

“You’ll find a lot of different retailers require different types of audits. There are so many class grades and varieties of produce, it makes it difficult to have one set of auditing principles,” Edgar said.

The association has made some headway in having audits that are designed to fit greenhouse production, as opposed to open-field practices, Lee said.

“CanadaGAP is currently working on different audit schemes that apply to greenhouse, but it’s really driven by our customer base — what they require and what they request,” he said.

Sally Blackman, manager of food safety & nutrition with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, agreed.

“Certainly that’s what we’re hoping for, as you add much acceptance by harmonizing,” she said.

Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology, for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, described a one-size-fits-all comprehensive audit as the “holy grail” of the industry.

“What we have seen in our collective examination of these audit programs is that 90-plus percent of them are the same, so a reasonable person would assume we could get to a standardized audit issue,” he said.