LAS VEGAS — If questions lead to answers, the United Fresh Produce Association's Global Conference on Food Safety Standards should move the industry closer to harmonization of food safety systems and audits.
Up to 300 people attended the April 24-25 event that followed the United Fresh convention, and they asked many questions about the future direction of third party auditors, international certification schemes and whether harmonization of food safety standards might lead to less need for multiple audits.
The event reflected a determination by industry leaders to better manage the issue of unnecessary costs associated with multiple food safety audits, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh, Washington, D.C.
"For the past year, we've listened to the discussions grow regarding audit harmonization and so it became necessary to have a meeting like this," he said. "Before we can make changes, before we can make improvements, we have to start with the facts."
For that reason, Gombas said he was glad that 16 different food safety related organizations participated and he said the event will build momentum toward further work on the issue.
Because 91% of food safety audit standards are the same, Gombas said international harmonization of standards holds some promise in reducing unnecessary audits.
"I'm pretty sure our leaders are going to tell us that we need to start putting together task forces and meetings to start problem solving this issue, from moving past the strategic questions to the strategic answers," Gombas said.
A United Fresh task force is working on a report to offer a convenient matrix or comparison between food safety audit standards, he said.
During a question and answer session, Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita Brands International, Franklin, Park, Ill., asked if the produce industry should create one standard, rather than try to harmonize multiple standards.
"We are harmonizing standards, 95% of which are the same. My question is why don't we take the 95% that are the same and make a standard?"
Burness said resources are being wasted because auditors must be trained and evaluated for various standards.