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 Unitedfresh.org), tweaks are being made and there will be minor
changes to the just-published guidelines coming within the next couple of
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.”