NEW ORLEANS — This was not your standard produce conference food safety session.

At the National Watermelon Association’s Convention, executive director Bob Morrissey brought together three speakers representing the industry, the government and third-party auditors with the goal of giving growers the opportunity to ask point-blank questions about how Food Safety Modernization Act rules would specifically affect their operations.

Those attending the Feb. 27 session voiced concerns about whether they’d be covered by the produce safety rule or the preventive controls rule, what they see as nonsensical audit mandates and how to comply with water tesing rules.

Growers were most vocal during a presentation by Courtney Cox, who as director of quality assurance for Primus AuditingOps, follows up on grower complaints stemming from third-party audits by her company. A sister company, Azzule Systems, owns the PrimusGFS auditing scheme some of the growers use for food safety certification.

Two main points of contention concerning PrimusGFS and its application to watermelon growing/packing: a requirement that all employees handling watermelons must wear hairnets, and all packing should be in fully enclosed facilities.

NWA members said there’s no food safety risk involved without hairnets, and that a majority of watermelon shippers pack in pole barns.

Cox said the single most common non-compliant issue in the watermelon industry  — with 76% of facilities — is the mandate for four walls.

Several in attendance also pointed out that no retailer demands their own employees wear hairnets when handling the watermelons.

Morrissey said he plans to follow up with Azzule Systems on these issues.

“I assure you from the association level we are going to aggressively approach (Azzule) to discuss these things,” he said. “We need to get to some point where these audits are making common sense and stop with these expectation that are unrealistic, that are not only causing (growers-shippers) harm, but are costing them money.”

Cox said Primus AuditingOps is now following up audits with customer surveys, and the company is hiring auditors to replace ones that have been let go for various reasons, including failure to file timely reports. She encouraged growers who are unhappy with the audit visit to file a complaint and her office will follow up.

A number of NWA members were also concerned about whether they are covered by the produce safety rule — basically growers are covered — or the preventive control rule, which is directed at processors.

A fuzzy area, however, concerns handling other growers’ watermelons at a facility apart from a farm, which is a common practice for many watermelon shipppers.

After hearing about a number of different growing/packing scenarios from the group, Kevin Gerrity, from the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Affairs/Office of Food and Feed Operations in San Diego, said the FDA would not penalize a company for failing to register with the agency if it falls under the preventive controls rule.

In fact, Gerrity said education, not enforcement, is key in ensuring the industry complies with FSMA.

Typically, if an FDA inspection turns up a problem, the inspector will leave a notice with the company, and if the problem isn’t resolved by the time a follow-up inspection is scheduled, a warning letter is issued.

“Then we’ll start ratcheting things up, we start talking about seizures and injunctions,” Gerrity said. “ ... At the end of the day, we are a regulatory agency, so if it comes to a point where we can’t come to an agreement and it appears that there’s product that may harm the public that could end up in the market, we have to take action. But that’s absolutely the last step.”

David Gombas, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association, recommended growers take advantage of on-farm readiness reviews, a free service that will be provided by the state or federal agency overseeing the produce rule inspections.

One grower said he heard the federal government has raised the stakes in responding to food safety problems and foodborne illness outbreaks, threatening criminal prosecution.

That, Gombas said, hasn’t changed since the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was established. In recent years, that led to prison sentences for offficials at the Peanut Corporation of American, for knowingly shipping tainted peanut butter. In a listeria outbreak that killed more than 30 people that was traced to Jensen Farms cantaloupe, the brothers at the company were charged with a misdemeanor and received probation. The difference in the cases, Gombas said, was intentionally doing wrong and knowingly shipping tainted product.