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The produce industry has long complained about competing Good Agricultural Practice audits, and now a new working group will meet next month to start hammering out a single standard for all third-party GAP audits by October 2010.

"We've created a monster allowing different standards to propagate," said David Gombas, project coordinator for the GAP harmonization effort and senior vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association.

There are growers and handlers experiencing redundant and sometimes conflicting GAP audits, according to Dr. Gombas, who added that one company said it endures 12 audits during an eight-week business cycle. "It's a waste of money," he told The Produce News.

Since 2007, produce industry leaders have been exploring ways to harmonize audits. In August, a steering committee chaired by Brian Kocher, president of Chiquita Brands North America, launched the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative. The steering committee gained new members ranging from growers-shippers to distributors to retailers to association representatives and met Sept. 22 in Atlanta.

"Our goal is that one audit by any credible third party can be acceptable to all buyers," Mr. Kocher said in an Oct. 14 press release. "Tackling that challenge will require the participation of the industry as a whole, and I'm excited about the initial participation thus far."

Now a working group will meet in November led by Suresh Decosta of McDonald's Corp. and Dr. Gombas to begin comparing GAP standards and identifying similarities to reach a North American audit standard. The working group plans to report back to the steering committee with a consensus-based harmonized GAP standard for review by next October.

This is no easy task, said Dr. Gombas, as evidenced by other sectors of the food industry that have tried and failed to reach an agreement on auditing standards. Learning from past mistakes, the steering committee directed the working group not to create a new audit from scratch.

"We don't want another add-on audit," Dr. Gombas said.

The group could end up recommending an existing audit standard. "We're not closing our minds" to any possibility, he added. "But if we don't do anything, it can only get worse."

Both buyers and suppliers of produce on the steering committee agree that the GAP standard must be globally recognized through a credible third-party auditing process and non proprietary. Additionally, it must be available to all producers and others for use in self audits and improving practices throughout the entire industry. The new standard must be based on the best science available and take a risk-based approach that reflects U.S. government public health regulation and guidance.

"We got a critical mass of business leaders," Dr. Gombas said. So far, 55 representatives have signed up for the steering committee.

Industry leaders in the grower-shipper-processor category are Mark Bataska of Sun World International, Tony DiMare of DiMare Co., Barry Eisenberg of River Ranch Fresh Foods, Bob Elliot of Sunkist Growers, J.D. Grubb of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Jim Lemke of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Tom Lovelace of McEntire Produce, Tom Mack of Dole Food Co., Bob Mills of Tanimura & Antle, Gurmail Mudahar of Tanimura & Antle, Walter Ram of the Giumarra Cos., Steffanie Smith of River Point Farms, Brian Stepien of Green Giant Fresh, Bill Schuler of Castellini Co., Kari Valdes of River Ranch Fresh Foods, and Tom Young of Del Monte Fresh Produce.

Members representing the foodservice industry are Scott Brooks of Yum Brands, Suresh Decosta of McDonald's Corp., Steve Grinstead of Pro*Act, Jorge Hernandez of U.S. Foodservice, Ana Hooper of Darden Restaurants, Anne Marie McNamara of Jack in the Box, Mark Mignogna of Sysco Corp., Phil Penny of Pro*Act, Mitch Smith of McDonald's Corp., Mike Spinazzola of Subway, and Tim York of Markon.

Members of the retail sector are Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Bob Frappier of Ahold, Reggie Griffin of Kroger, Roger Harkrider of H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Mahipal Kunduru of Safeway, Jerry Noland of Safeway, Mike O'Brien of Schnucks, Michael Roberson of Publix, Rodrigo Santibanez of Walmart, Randy Scott of Food Lion, Dave Wiemer of Supervalu, Craig Wilson of Costco Wholesale, and Frank Yiannas of Walmart.

Representatives of industry associations are Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual, Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Committee, Nancy Foster of USApple, Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, John Keeling of the National Potato Council, John McClung of Texas Produce Association, Matt McInerney of Western Growers Association, Bob Morrissey of the National Watermelon Association, Laura Phelps of the American Mushroom Institute, Chris Schlect of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Bryan Silbermann of the Produce Marketing Association, Tom Stenzel of the United Fresh Produce Association, Mike Stuart of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, and Chris Valadez of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League.