Records, he said, are important. “Keep it simple but keep it accurate.”

Product recalls may be the bane of the industry but Gombas said operations can survive—with adequate preparation. “You don’t have to do anything wrong to be caught up in a recall,” he said. “Recalls can be painful or very painful but fortune favors the prepared. Many unprepared companies no longer exist.”

He said likelihood of recalls is greater with increased surveillance of fresh produce for pathogens. “All fresh produce is now treated as ready-to-eat. And when pathogens are detected public health agencies are obligated to ask companies to recall the product.”

He said investigators “rarely find the cause” of contamination.

Audits are part of the process and a fact of doing business in the produce industry. Gombas said standards among different audits may be similar but “different enough to require complete repeat of an audit. Operations complain of ‘audit fatigue,’” he said.

“Also, customers have difficulty accepting audits from different schemes. Standards and audit processes are too different to compare results.”

An industry vision is to develop a “harmonized food safety standard and checklist for Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) audits and globally accepted auditing processes to protect consumers from potential hazards that may contaminate produce at that stage of the supply chain and that will build efficiencies into the audit process.”

Gombas said one audit by any credible third party should be acceptable to all buyers.

The industry has developed a technical working group to study harmonization. The group will include more than 150 stakeholders including customers, suppliers, government, audit companies, association staffs and others.

“We want a broad range of fresh produce commodities, operation sizes and regions, including Canada and Mexico,” Gombas said. “No stakeholders are excluded.”

So far, the process has identified commonly accepted GAP audits standards, 60 common audit categories and has developed a first draft of Harmonized Standards. Two standards have been drafted, one for field operation, field harvest and field packing and one for post harvest operations.

The standard includes 84 audit items and 14 written policies/procedures, including: food safety plan; traceability and recall programs; toilet, worker hygiene and health policy; and a water management plan.

The standard includes 14 types of records including training, soil amendments, agricultural chemicals, pre-plant and pre-harvest risk assessments and microbial testing, if performed.

“We want one audit for all commodities,” Gombas said. That audit will focus on the most likely food safety risks and the questions will be the same regardless of operation region, size or commodity grown or handled.

The next step is to select commodities to “pilot the standards,” Gombas said.  Pilot commodities could include apples, potatoes, leafy greens, mushrooms, citrus and berries. Large and small grower and packing operations will be included and the audit team will consist of operation, auditor and customer.

“We will use findings from this program to update and finalize harmonized standards,” Gombas said. That could occur sometime in mid-year. Training auditors and suppliers also will be part of the process.

He said the industry needs research into critical food safety issues. “We don’t need more research to find more risks. Risks are all around us. We need hard research.”

He said studies should focus on what to do about risks such as pathogens in open source irrigation water, pathogens in contaminated soil, and pathogens from animals. He said a better understanding of how useful testing is would also be helpful. “We need to know when to test, where and how far to go. We also need to understand region and commodity differences.”

Gombas said research should concentrate on “real-world conditions and what pathogens are doing instead of what they can be made to do in a laboratory setting.”

He said data sharing and collaboration will be crucial between researchers, industry, and government. “We must learn from outbreak data, epidemiology and seasonality.”

He said funding agencies must be engaged and that a real-time educational outreach is needed.

“A fresh produce ‘kill step’, while a ‘high reward’ achievement is a long-term, low likelihood goal,” he said.