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MONTEREY, CA -- It is a given these days that foodservice operators and distributors expect their suppliers to have third-party audited food-safety programs in place, according to several of the participants in a food-safety panel Saturday, July 25, at the Produce Marketing Association's Foodservice Conference & Exposition, here.

But panelists from both sides of the foodservice supply chain acknowledged the difficulties and additional costs that arise from a lack of consistency in food-safety standards. Currently, suppliers may be required by one customer to meet one set of standards and by another customer to meet another set of standards, and the need for some sort of harmonization or equivalency was discussed at considerable length.

From the producer side, Bob Gray, executive vice president of A. Duda & Sons Inc., thought it would be "wonderful if we could all agree on a certain benchmark, but I don't think that is gong to happen. So in my own mind, some kind of audit equivalency makes sense." Currently, two systems might already be 98 percent in harmony, but "if we are going to compete on those last two or three attributes in an audit, we add what is probably an unnecessary cost to the system."

Even with the Global Food Safety Initiative, Mr. Gray said, "there is anecdotal evidence with U.S. companies picking one of the approved platforms yet the customer refusing to recognize that platform," although "theoretically they are equivalent."

Domestic producers in the United States currently have only one approved choice under GFSI, and that is SQF, he noted. But SQF is "not a pure food- safety standard." It is also a quality standard, "and quality can be variable" based on region, product line, season and other factors.

"My hope," said Mr. Gray, "would be that ... more of our U.S. standards that are rigorous could be accepted by GFSI so you don't have to learn a new system" every time a customer decides to go in a new direction.

Mr. Gray also emphasized that audits do not constitute a food-safety program. Rather, food safety is "fundamentally about changing the way you do business." Unless "the entire organization, top to bottom," is taught to "do things differently," it is "a waste of time and money," he said. "We [are] not going to test our way to safety." The audit, then, is basically "a validation" that "at that moment in time, under those conditions, the system worked or appeared to work."

Jorge Hernandez, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice, said that while most suppliers are conscientious about food safety, "there are people out there who don't care, and they put your business at risk."

Drew McDonald, vice president of national quality systems for Taylor Fresh Foods Inc., talked about the need for government-mandated food-safety standards.

There was also discussion about whether standards should be strictly for food safety or whether they should also include sustainability and social accountability.

Other panel participants were Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc.; Bob Stovicek, president and chairman of PrimusLabs.com; Suresh Decosta, manager of quality systems for McDonald's Corp.; and Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita Brands International.