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SAVANNAH, GA -- As is increasingly the case when members of the produce industry gather, food safety was top-of-mind at the 12th annual Southeastern Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference, held Jan. 7-10 at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

The conference offered two days of educational sessions designed to help growers, shippers and transporters navigate the current maze of federal food-safety regulations and get ready for even more stringent guidelines certainly on the way from Washington, DC.

The food-safety program kicked off Jan. 8 with a GAP audit session, then touched on a dozen more topics over the next two days, highlighted by sessions on produce traceability and impending food-safety legislation. Elliot Grant, chief marketing officer of Redwood, CA-based YottaMark, made the case for adopting the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry effort to provide supply-chain-wide electronic traceability by 2012.

Led by the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the initiative would add three to five cents to the cost of a case of product. Barcodes placed on cases at their points of origin would provide an immediate history when scanned at any stop along the supply chain.

Retailers are clamoring for such an initiative, and some have indicated that they will do business only with suppliers that employ traceability technology. "There are a lot of benefits [to the produce industry] in having this kind of traceability, and [in] the information flow you can have with your retail customers," said Mr. Grant. "PTI buys you an advantage in the market if retailers require people that have a PTI label."

A flurry of food-safety bills approved by the House of Representatives and now in committee will likely reach the Senate by April, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh in Washington.

Mr. Gombas said that the industry is lobbying for tweaks to the pending legislation, particularly regarding crop-specific guidelines that some fear will paralyze sectors of the fresh produce industry.

"We are trying to get additional efforts on produce-specific requirements that allow [for] consumer confidence but don't kill the industry," he said. "Traceability will be in there, but we need to make sure it will work for the fresh produce industry. With one broad brush to cover all foods, we have to make sure that brush doesn't wipe us away."

Beth Bland, food safety program coordinator for the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, offered advice to industry members preparing for a food-safety audit. "First things first, take a deep breath. This stuff is not hard; you have simply never done it before. I have found most operations are doing about 90 percent of everything asked by food safety audits -- they are simply not documented [as such]."

Further proof of that can be seen in the Food & Drug Administration's proposed tomato-specific guidelines, said Walter Ram, food safety director at The Giumarra Cos. in Los Angeles. The new FDA regulations are virtually identical to standards developed by the tomato industry and presented to the agency.

"This year, we produced a groundbreaking document that doesn't just cover growers but the entire supply chain; the FDA published their own version of what we wrote," said Mr. Ram. "We're confident it will be effective, and they didn't come up with some draconian set of regulations written by people who had never set foot on the farm that would kill the industry. We will see legislation pass in this Congress that mandates food-safety programs for the produce industry. [This is the] best chance we will ever have in influencing the law."