Segments of the U.S. produce industry are initiating self-regulating policies they hope will prevent government regulations they don’t want.

Those voluntary regulations also serve as marketing advantages, according to a panel of experts who discussed food safety issues recently during the Texas Produce Convention in McAllen.

“Our members use certification markers, based on scientific standards,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO, California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, Sacramento.

Participation in the agreement is voluntary but the organization does have teeth. “Membership requires corrective action on any non-compliance,” Horsfall said.

The organization was created following the 2006 spinach contamination, which cost the industry $150 million. “The market agreement put into place an organization that enforces food safety standards,” he said. It also includes good agricultural practices (GAP).

Participation requires a lot of documentation, including a list of growers and production plans. Horsfall said other commodities are looking at the LGMA model.

Robert Sorenson, Sysco Foods, Houston, said his company has always “taken food safety seriously. We’ve always had an extensive quality assurance program. It is responsible and it is a selling tool.”

The company’s commitment includes field and facility inspection and traceability.

“With (recent) food safety concerns we drafted a new program,” Sorenson said. That program includes GAP and third party audits, especially for “at risk” crops such as lettuce, spinach, berries and cucurbits. A database allows for monitoring and documentation of compliance and a list of approved suppliers.

“If we wait, government regulations will give us something we don’t want,” Sorenson said. “An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure.”

Chris Dzuik, San Antonio, product quality manager for the HEB chain, also noted the company’s commitment to good hygiene practices. He said an HEB produce safety course teaches vendors how to identify and correct problems. “Our goal is to promote the safest, highest quality produce and lower risks for our customers,” Dzuik said.

Training is available for vendors, from small farms to large corporations. “The vendors train employees and they implement practices on the farms.”

He said traceability is a key to improving food safety. “It’s also a marketing advantage.”

Catherine Enright, Western Growers Association, Washington, D.C., panel moderator, said the industry needs collaborators to provide voluntary food safety programs.

email: rsmith@farmpress.com