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In its comments to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding its proposed voluntary third-party certification program, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) said a globally standardized and certified audit program would be an important step toward satisfying the produce supply chain's critical need for uniformity, reliability and consistency in produce food safety requirements.
The association's comments were submitted in response to an FDA request per a Federal Register notice published July 10 and which were due Sept. 8.
PMA's chief science officer Dr. Robert Whitaker encouraged the agency to use existing FDA guidance documents and commodity-specific Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) documents as a basis for creating a food safety standard that the agency could then certify third parties to audit against.
"Third-party certification programs to validate food safety practices is among the most important and complex issues facing the [produce] industry," PMA wrote. "An FDA-developed global standard and certified audit program would address industry's critical need for uniformity, reliability and consistency in addressing suppliers' and buyers' food safety requirements."
PMA went on to say that it fully supports FDA's proposal to proceed with a third-party certification program, given the agency's limited auditing resources, which Whitaker said "would permit the agency to use outside resources to achieve its mission, while focusing its own auditors on the highest priority foods."
The association emphasized its support of an FDA initiative that would permit diverse produce certification and auditing options. This would allow companies who have already invested in food safety infrastructure to continue their business relationships with their chosen third-party partners, providing FDA requirements are met.
"We are encouraged by FDA's progress in this critical area of food safety, but more work needs to be done to ensure this regulation reflects the produce industry's nuances," said PMA government relations specialist Kathy Means. "As we cast this proposal against PMA's overall food safety regulatory platform - which is grounded in the everyday realities of its membership - it's evident PMA's continued leadership on the topic of food safety will prove essential in making a voluntary third-party certification program relevant, actionable and enforceable."
PMA has been advocating for mandatory food safety regulation for more than a year, to restore consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce. The association's position is that such regulation must be risk-based, to give the greatest consumer protection; scientifically proven to be effective at reducing food safety risks; recognizes the inherent differences among the different fruits and vegetables and their different growing regions, related production, harvest and packing practices; and applies to domestically grown as well as imported fruits and vegetables.