Tomato growers frustrated over audits

02/29/2012 08:57:00 AM
Doug Ohlemeier

Some of the audit fatigue frustrations growers experience boiled over during a recent industry meeting discussing tomato food safety metrics.
The tomato industry’s brain trust of growers, shippers, repackers, buyers, regulators and auditors met at the Florida Tomato Exchange headquarters in Maitland in early February to discuss audit protocols. 
Because of the additional time and resources needed to satisfy numerous customer audit requests, the tomato industry is working to incorporate the tomato food safety metrics into a harmonized standard under the leadership of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, Fla., expressed disappointment with what he calls “shower science,” the protocols auditors and customers come up with that may not be practical.
“The differentiation is that someone as a customer says they’re going to be different and will say if there’s a cow within the next galaxy, they’re not going to buy,” Heller said. 
“I can live with almost all of it, but not the ‘shower thoughts.’
“It shouldn’t be in there if they’re not supported by science,” he said. “Opinions don’t work.”
In a discussion about birds roosting on electric poles near tomato field bins, Heller said Florida growers must deal with a variety of wildlife, including lizards and alligators. 
If auditors regulate how close wildlife can be to fields, it should be a science-based rule, he said.
Drew McDonald, Salinas, Calif.-based vice president of quality and food safety for Danaco Solutions LLC, Highland Park, Ill., said each circumstance is different.
“What we don’t want to do is throw the baby out with the bath water and remove all poles and eliminate all birds,” he said. 
“I’m not exaggerating when I say we had a customer saying there’s too much dirt (in the field). We can get a little crazy here but these are common-sense things.
“People agree they don’t want bird droppings on fresh produce, but what they disagree on is ways to prevent that,” McDonald said.
Buyers expressed interest in harmonized standards.
“As a vendor approver and buyer, we would love to see standards,” said Ross McKenney, vice president of quality assurance for fresh-cut and repack operations for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla.
McKenney, an audience member attending the panel session, said adherence to Good Agricultural Practice standards vary by company, large and small.
Leo Glaab, warehouse supervisor and food safety director of Veg-Fresh Farms, Anaheim, Calif., said the tomato metrics show regulators the industry’s forward thinking.
“We’re trying to self-regulate to prevent government from intervening in our operations,” Glaab said. 
“We’ve been endowed with layer and layer of regulations. It’s crippling our nation.”
The tomato metrics are the product of rigorous development, yet they still provide shippers the ability to comply with their customer wishes, said David Gombas, United Fresh’s senior vice president of food safety and technology.
The industry wants all of the tomato metrics to remain in the harmonized audit as the process moves forward.
dohlemeier@thepacker.com
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