Produce safety and traceability were two central topics of discussion this week at the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2010 industry conference in Las Vegas.

The increased industry-wide focus on improving food safety and ensuring products are traceable from farm to fork comes as Congress considers legislation to overhaul outdated food safety in an effort to prevent deadly and economically damaging foodborne illness outbreaks.

“Food safety is the new, big hot button demand,” said Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for The Giumarra Companies, an international produce business. “It’s the one we have to pay the most attention to.”

The United Fresh exhibit hall featured two demo centers, one focused on food safety and one on traceability. Each hosted a series of presentations and discussions on issues ranging from micro testing to import safety to the produce safety rulemaking process.

In a speech at the conference, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who is leading food safety efforts at the agency, emphasized the need for national produce safety standards and invited industry input.

“We need to be risk-based and we need to be scale-appropriate,” said Taylor. “We’ve got to target the significant hazards. We can’t just go and set standards that we don’t believe will address the significant hazards and are improving food safety.  We need input from this association and colleagues throughout the industry to help us figure out in practice to say that we’ll have rules that are scale-appropriate.”

James Gorny, senior advisor for produce food safety at the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition at FDA, echoed a similar message during sessions at the food safety demo center. Gorny discussed the importance of industry involvement as the agency looks at new rules on preventative controls, metrics, and performance standards.

“We’re calling for preventative controls,” said Gorny, in a session focused on FDA’s proposed food safety rule. “We understand we can’t do business as usual. We have to make sure everyone comes up to basic compliance and we need clear standards to get there.”

“We recognize that rules will need to be tailored,” added Gorny. “We understand the produce industry is not one entity. There are 300 different commodities, and there are different scales.”

The traceability demo center sessions, which were very well-attended, focused on the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), a project launched by United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) in 2008 to standardize produce industry traceability practices.