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Food safety takes center stage at Florida tomato meeting

by Chip Carter | September 16, 2010
NAPLES, FL — The world of food safety moves fast. In fact, it moves so fast that the self-written, just-imposed, state-regulated guidelines the Florida tomato industry adopted earlier this year are already being tweaked, experts told attendees on opening day of the 2010 Florida Tomato Committee conference held Sept. 7-12 at the Ritz-Carlton Naples, here.

"This is a living, moving document that will change as science gets better," said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. “We developed the first edition almost in self-defense [because] every company that was buying produce wanted a food-safety audit and every audit was different. We wanted to develop a practically applicable program that satisfied the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, nationally and internationally.”

The Florida tomato industry's move toward self-imposed governmental regulation is generally thought to have been a response to the 2008 Salmonella scare that scarred the industry. When hundreds of people were sickened that year, the FDA first pointed a finger at Florida tomatoes. And although the source was later revealed to be Jalapeño peppers from Mexico, the damage to the Florida industry was done.

In actuality, the Florida tomato industry started paying close attention to food safety years ago. A four-hour food-safety workshop — which counted toward accreditation now required by the state of Florida for those doing business in the industry — consumed the opening day of this year’s tomato conference and has done so each year since 2004, pre-dating the 2008 outbreak.

“Five years of learning — it’s amazing,” said Millie Ferrer-Chancy, dean of extension services at the University of Florida’s Institute for Food & Agricultural Sciences. “It began with Reggie Brown’s offer to provide space for an afternoon of training on different topics and research findings, and because of his foresight, this has been going on a long time. Food safety is very important and has been so critical to the industry — it’s very important to continue these food-safety workshops.”

IFAS and the exchange developed guidelines for tomato GAPs and BMPs, with Martha Roberts, special assistant to the director of the IFAS Florida Experiment Station in Lake Alfred, at the helm.

“It was much better for the industry to be proactive,” Ms. Roberts said. Now, other states — and the FDA itself — are looking to the Florida tomato industry’s self-written guidelines, which were adopted virtually intact by the state legislature and put into law earlier this year, for guidance on developing standards applicable to other produce industry segments.

The federal government is promising that all produce consumed in the United States will eventually be held to similar standards.

“Any program has to be based on the best science possible, whether you’re a producer with one or two acres or 1,000 acres of tomatoes,” Ms. Roberts said. Added Mr. Brown, “There is no producer in this country or anywhere in the world that has the right to produce unsafe food. It endangers each and every one of you. The fiasco of 2008 cost us all a bunch of money. By focusing on food safety now, we avoid those kinds of problems going forward.”

The goal now is to “harmonize” regulations coming from Capitol Hill with those Florida farmers are already following.

Said Mr. Brown, “We have worked across the spectrum in an effort to bring about some consistency in these documents and hopefully harmonize these efforts to where there is ultimately one single tomato audit, and to gain credibility for those single audits that would avoid duplication.”

The next hurdle for the industry is to avoid a game of “one-upmanship” Ms. Roberts said, with “everybody changing the protocol to get an edge on competitors and moving to a harmonized food-safety audit. And just one. If the state has audited you, you shouldn’t have to have 10 or 12 other audits from other people — that should take care of you.”

The guidelines break down potential sources of food contamination into four categories: soil, water, farm laborers, and domesticated and wild animals. The original version of the regulations had 67 criteria in multiple categories.

“It’s designed to prevent an auditor from making subjective judgments about you and how you operate,” Mr. Brown said. “If you’ve somehow missed doing something correctly, how do you fix it? Are you doing it right? If not, what are you doing wrong?

“You all have been audited under the state TGAP program — that was the under-girding of what we started with to create these documents. There’s no new twist on it. It’s structured just slightly differently in a more straightforward, usable format. But it’s not different and should not cause any great amount of angst or consternation. It’s that simple. The biggest problem we’ve seen is that horrible thing called paperwork. None of us has been able to avoid that; if you say you did it, you have to record that you did it so we know you did it. Ninety-plus percent of all these requirements good [grower- shipper] operations have been doing for decades. We just need to train ourselves to record our performance in those areas and enhance those areas we may be missing to ensure we don’t have a replay of 2008.”

But those standards are already changing. Even as the new guidelines are going up on-line for the first time (posted at government and industry web sites, such as, tweaks are being made and there will be minor changes to the just-published guidelines coming within the next couple of weeks.

Up next is a an effort to secure a guarantee from distributors that they will accept a stamp of approval from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services as a final audit that supersedes third-party audits.

“It will be a challenge to get that agreement, but we have had discussions with a number of major brands and they appear willing to step forward and say if the audit is done by a credible auditing group — like the state government — they will accept that audit.”