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WASHINGTON -- A group of some 50 produce industry leaders from every stage of the supply chain have come together to begin work on a major initiative to drive harmonization of standards and audits for Good Agricultural Practices.

The group was convened following widespread interest in harmonization voiced by industry leaders at the Global Conference on Produce Food Safety Standards, held in conjunction with the United Fresh Produce Association convention in April.

The Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative is led by a steering committee chaired by Brian Kocher, president of Chiquita Brands North America. A number of industry leaders participated in a conference call web meeting Aug. 18 to discuss the concept of GAP harmonization and a draft process to launch the initiative. Since that time, a wide cross-section of produce grower-shippers, processors, distributors, foodservice operators, retailers and association representatives came together to express their support for the effort and join the steering committee, which held its first meeting Sept. 22 in Atlanta.

"Produce business leaders clearly raised this need for harmonized GAP standards," Mr. Kocher said in an Oct. 14 press release from United. "This effort addresses one of our most important challenges: the proliferation of audits and standards that do nothing to improve overall food safety yet contribute to duplication, inefficiency and add unnecessary costs to consumers. Tackling that challenge will require the participation of the industry as a whole, and I'm excited about the initial participation thus far."

At the meeting in Atlanta, steering committee members agreed on a vision and work plan for the effort, reinforcing its commitment to a totally open and transparent process that welcomes all industry players to participate.

"Our vision is to ensure the highest level of food safety protection for our consumers by ensuring that science-based GAP standards address the most critical prevention steps necessary, that the industry develop and embrace audits and checklists that are consistent in measuring these practices, and that these tools allow for rigorous independent validation," Mr. Kocher said in the release. "Our goal is that one audit by any credible third party can be acceptable to all buyers."

As a next step, under direction established by the steering committee of business leaders, a broad technical working group will now be convened under the leadership of Suresh Decosta of McDonald's Corp. and David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology of United Fresh.

The technical working group will be open to all participants across the industry who are willing to join in the effort to develop harmonized GAP standards. This is intended to be a broadly inclusive group of technical, QA and food-safety experts across the industry, ensuring representation of all points of view in its deliberations.

The technical working group will begin its efforts examining similarities and differences in all existing GAP standards in use, with a goal toward identifying specific areas of current alignment, and those areas requiring further work to get to a harmonized approach. Ultimately, the working group will develop a consensus-based harmonized GAP standard for proposal back to the steering committee for review.

In looking ahead, both buyers and suppliers of produce on the steering committee agreed that for the ultimate outcome to be successful, a GAP standard must be globally recognized through a credible third-party auditing process but also must be non-proprietary and available to all producers and others for use in self audits and improving practices throughout the entire industry. In addition, the standard must clearly be based on the best science available and a risk-based approach that reflects U.S. government public health regulation and guidance.

The first meeting of the technical working group will likely be scheduled in November.

For more information about the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative or to volunteer to serve on the technical working group, contact Dr. Gombas at dgombas@unitedfresh.org or 202/303-3400.