(April 9, 3:42 p.m.) NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — To keep pace with changes warranted by food safety enhancements and harsh economic conditions, companies involved in the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain must reinvent themselves to ensure future success.

But, if industry officials take the challenges head-on, success is still possible despite rising costs and ever-changing markets, experts suggested at the Produce Marketing Association’s Consumer Trends ’08 — A Produce Solutions Conference on April 3-5.

The convention featured consumer panel discussions and forums dealing with wide-ranging topics, such as produce safety, eating trends and how cultural differences affect produce sales.

FLUX REFLECTED BY PANEL’S MAKE-UP

That the industry is in flux became apparent during an April 4 food safety panel, when Scott Horsfall noted he has only 10 months on the job, but that still qualified him as the “grizzled veteran” on the three-member panel.

Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, gave a rosy report on a recent audit of the group, saying 99.3% of member companies were found to be in compliance. None of the violations since the agreement’s April 2007 start involved instances of tainted produce reaching consumers.

Perhaps the biggest change in food safety for the produce industry is the depth and detail of the food safety monitoring and record-keeping.

“Documentation is at the heart of all of our efforts … to make sure our growers are complying with the standards,” Horsfall said.

Another big change: the cost of safety. Horsfall said overall spending on food safety measures by agreement members since the E. coli outbreak of 2006 has tripled and food safety staff costs have doubled. Water costs have also risen — by a multiple of five — Horsfall said, noting that four new signatories have joined the group in the recent weeks.

OPEN-MINDEDNESS VITAL

Bonnie Fernandez, the first director of the Center For Produce Safety, encouraged PMA members to be open to new food safety ideas.

“Let’s be open to all the possibilities,” said Fernandez, who will be seeking industry input. “Our vision for the future is to be recognized as kind of a go-to organization, coordinating efforts to enhance the safety of produce.”

Fernandez outlined some of the center’s strategic priorities: to become a global clearinghouse and repository of research information; to develop new research; and to provide outreach and training for research and regulatory sectors.

Fernandez said she plans to use PMA chief scientific officer Robert Whitaker’s expertise. He also is the center’s research and technology council chairman. Whitaker joined PMA on April 1.

“In my first 60 days, I want to focus on meeting with members across the entire supply chain and really listening to what they have to say,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said his immediate priorities include focusing on the mechanics of food safety, such as audits and data management, and serving as a resource to PMA’s government relations activities in food safety.

ALTER THINKING ON AUDITS

Whitaker said a new focus on measuring food safety outcomes represents “the most specific change in the recent evolution of food safety.”

He also cautioned that splintered, well-intentioned approaches to food safety could lead to confusion and a loss of focus.

“We get so caught up in audits, but remember an audit, in and of itself, does not make your product safe,” Whitaker said. “What truly makes your food safe is the process, is the risk assessment.”

His plans include working with governmental, third-party and industry organizations to develop good agricultural practice metrics.