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GAP Certification Helps Specialty Crop Growers Address Food Safety

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Salmonella? E. coli? Listeria? If you listen to the daily news, it won’t be long before you hear one or more of these mentioned.

During just the last couple of months, there have been almost a dozen food recalls due to pathogen contamination of products including ice cream, pistachios, macadamia nuts, eggs, ham and pet food.

So why are we hearing more and more about food safety these days?

Food Safety Modernization Act

The increase in visibility can probably be attributed to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

FSMA is considered to be the most sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years. It was signed into law by former President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, and the FDA has been working tirelessly ever since to write and implement the many rules associated with the law.

FSMA will likely influence every segment of the produce business supply chain, from farm to fork.

There are currently seven major regulations that affect how produce is grown, packed, processed, shipped and imported into the United States. These new laws have changed the focus from reacting to a problem after it has occurred to actively preventing the microbial contamination from ever happening.

FSMA has resulted in a spotlight on the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program and its parallel for packers and processors, the Good Handling Practices (GHP) program. In addition to highlighting producers’ and processors’ current food safety practices, the GAP/GHP requirements provide some insight for future FSMA rules.

Bee hive with Cow in the background

Consumers Want Assurance of Food Safety

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, GAP and GHP are voluntary audits that verify that fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.

The concept of GAP should not be new to most specialty crop growers because many “good agricultural practices,” like good chemical application records (fertilizers and pesticides), have become standard operating procedure at farms across the nation for years. However, these good practices are becoming even more imperative for growers as the concern about food-borne illnesses reaches the media spotlight.

Whether farms are growing produce that is covered or exempt under the new law, everyone knows they are not exempt from the necessity of growing safe food.

Many farms are finding that even though several commodities such as pecans and sweet potatoes are exempt from the FSMA produce regulation, they are still required to be GAP-certified to sell their commodities. This requirement is being driven by buyers from grocery chains or produce distribution companies that require their suppliers to be GAP-certified. This is especially true for institutional markets (e.g., schools, hospitals), produce distributors and retail grocery outlets motivated to manage the risk of food-borne illness and recalls.

The general public has continued to ramp up its demand for a safer food supply on a domestic level and from foreign imports. Whether farms are growing produce that is covered or exempt under the new law, everyone knows they are not exempt from the necessity of growing safe food for human or animal consumption.

What Does It Take to Get Certified?

GAP certifications require written documentation of a food safety program, which includes guidelines on:

  • Irrigation and wash water quality.
  • Soil amendments.
  • Domesticated and wild animals.
  • Worker health and hygiene.
  • Sanitation of equipment, tools and buildings.
  • Traceability and recall.
  • Crisis management.

While this list may seem overwhelming at first, many growers already practice most of the components necessary for good farm safety and management.

Should I Get GAP Certified?

Third-party GAP certification offers a way for growers to let buyers know that they follow appropriate food safety practices on their farms.

Third-party GAP certification is currently voluntary, meaning that it is not yet mandated by law. Growers must measure the economic cost against the benefits before deciding whether to pursue certification. Costs of adopting these GAPs can include large capital investments, such as water purification equipment, or more moderate expenditures, such as training workers to improve hygiene and upgrading record-keeping technologies.

Other Food Safety Audit Programs

In addition to the USDA certification, there are a number of private food safety audit programs available. Most of their requirements are similar to USDA’s, but they also differ in specific requirements.

Farms and food businesses should check with buyers to confirm their specific requirements. For example, since July 1, 2007, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program demands that fresh apple providers be GAP-certified under its own GAP program.

Charlie Graham, Ph.D.
Senior Pecan Specialist