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WASHINGTON -- Fresh produce businesses can for the first time compare third-party auditor services thanks to a working group spearheaded by the United Fresh Produce Association.

The Audits Benchmarking Matrix, which was released April 30, allows users to compare eight organizations that perform pre-farm gate audits, seven businesses that perform post-farm gate audits, and four organizations whose standards have been benchmarked by the Global Food Safety Initiative.

“The Audits Benchmarking Matrix allows interested parties to compare what these companies say about themselves from the convenience of a desktop,” said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh.

The ability to compare auditing services allows produce companies to have trust in how auditors are selected and trained and how inspections are conducted, he said, adding, “Trust is the most important factor in deciding whether to use an audit organization."

The new matrix grew out of the 2009 Global Conference on Produce food Standards, a United Fresh-sponsored two-day event that allowed some 300 produce leaders to hear from 16 auditing organizations on their audits and standards. A working group, led by Gail Murray, consumer products senior safety and quality manager for Disney, invited the audit organizations to provide written responses to questions about their programs.

“We asked the same questions that customers would ask when trying to select or decide to accept an audit program,” said Ms. Murray. _

The new matrix comes as the produce industry is feverishly developing harmonized food-safety standards for Good Agricultural Practice audits with the hope of creating one audit acceptable to all buyers. The produce industry has long complained about the escalating cost and duplication among audits used to measure compliance with GAPs.

Dr. Gombas said that a group of industry representatives are hosting their fifth meeting in May, and a draft report is nearly two-thirds completed. The Produce GAPs Harmonization Initiative Technical Working Group is hoping to complete a harmonized food-safety standard report by September.

At an April 19 meeting, members of the Steering Committee reaffirmed its commitment to adhere to the GAP harmonization report.

“If you build it, we will use it,” Dr. Gombas said, referring to the Steering Committee’s recommendations at the Las Vegas meeting.