A BYPRODUCT of efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption will be an increased focus on food quality and food safety.

"The fruit and vegetable industry is no longer just mom and pop operators," said Donna Garren, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. "It's an international marketplace with year-round demand and year-round availability," she said.

Garren discussed food safety issues during the Texas Produce Association Conference and Expo recently at South Padre Island.

As the industry evolves to meet the demands of a global market, Garen said, producers and buyers face new challenges. She said international guidelines dictate how some products are handled. "International guidelines focus on pesticide use," she said. "In the United States, the emphasis is more micro-biological."

She said developing standard guidelines is difficult because growing practices and climates differ with each crop, each region and each country.

"The GMO issue will continue to play a role in International markets and is beginning to affect U.S. producers. We don't see many GMO products in the fruit and vegetable industry yet, but it will be an issue."

Garren said some nations use phyto-toxicity issues as barriers to trade.

"If we can develop generally accepted standards, Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), we can reduce the potential for contamination. GAPs will include soil, water, packing sheds, etc., and trace-back potential so problems can be tracked to the source."

She advised producers and packers to train employees to follow strict sanitary standards and to document those standards and the training that prepares workers to understand and follow them.

"Producers have to maintain accountability," she said. "Document your pest control, sanitation and production training programs and verify that the programs work."

She said managers should develop programs that include field workers and upper management. She also recommended a third-party auditor to assure credibility.

"And examine the credibility of the auditors. UFFVA can help," she said.

Garren said the U.S. produce industry enjoys a reputation for high quality, safe foods. "The number of incidences is extremely low," she said. "We have the safest supply of food in the world."