The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the vast majority of the produce industry, released an updated set of food safety auditing benchmarks for buyers and suppliers of tomatoes this week.

According to United Fresh, the newly-released Food Safety Programs and Auditing Protocol for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain, 2009, is a harmonized food safety audit protocol that identifies policies and practices to minimize the microbiological risks associated with tomato production and handling.

tomatoes2-featured.jpg“This effort was a true collaboration between the tomato industry, our customers and government,” said Ed Beckman, who serves as the president of California Tomato Farmers and helped develop the document. “Not only is there agreement on standardized risk reduction protocol for the entire supply chain, there’s agreement that a single commodity-specific audit has greater merit than multiple generic audits.”

“The growers of California Tomato Farmers were pleased to successfully pilot the program and look forward to working with our customers on full implementation in 2010,” added Beckman.

The document includes four sets of food safety protocols: Open Field Production, Harvest and Field Packing, Greenhouse, Packinghouse, and Repacking and Distribution. Each section contains separate standards that are attainable “regardless of region, size, growing practice, or sub-commodity handled,” and each section has a specific audit checklist accompanying it.

“This document will be a valuable asset for the fresh and fresh-cut tomato industry in terms of reducing confusion and conflicting expectations,” said Dr. David Gombas, United Fresh senior vice president of food safety and technology. “We found that multiple stakeholders in the tomato industry were unsure of what constituted ‘compliance.'”

“By bringing together a critical mass from the U.S. and Mexico fresh tomato supply chain, including suppliers, customers and representatives of FDA and USDA, the industry was able to come to consensus on what was reasonable and attainable by growers and handlers, and also satisfied customers’ expectations,” added Gombas.

According to United Fresh, the next step will be a training course for both government and private sector auditors on how to perform audits according to the updated set of protocols.

The updated food safety protocols can be viewed here.