Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 11 ~ GAP 101, Group GAP Certification & Online Food Safety Tools

food-safety-starts-on-the-farm

Today our Marketing & Sales series continues with guidance and tools to help you improve on-farm food safety. We hear from Raman Maangat, Food Safety Program Manager with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) on the ins and outs of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Jeff Farbman, Sr. Program Associate with the Wallace Center on a new Group GAP (GGAP) certification program slated to launch in 2016, and Conor Butkus, Business Development Program Coordinator with familyfarmed.org about their easy-to-use food safety tool.

Read on to learn more about why GAPs are important, ways to easily incorporate them into your on-farm practices, and how Group GAP certification and a user-friendly online food safety tool can save you time and money!


Written by Raman Maagnat.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are practices that growers adopt/adapt on their farm in order to minimize the risk of contaminating the food they produce. The key for growers is to understand their own practices and how they may be impacting the safety of the produce they are growing, and where necessary, adapt/adopt new practices.

The push to implement GAPs may be driven by a number of factors including your customers, insurance companies, and changing regulations, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to be finalized in 2015 and/or state laws like California’s AB 224 (direct marketing and CSAs) & AB 1871 (direct marketing and farmers markets).

GAPs can be:

  • Self-certified, meaning growers understand what GAPs are and have implemented the practices throughout their operation with some documentation such as water test results, traceability, etc.
  • Third-party audited, meaning GAPs are implemented and appropriate documentation is kept (including many records/logs, checklists, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), etc.) and a qualified third party comes out and audits the farm to ensure that GAPs are being followed.

GAP key focus areas include:

Water:

Water_Irrigation

  • What is the source and how is it being used? Irrigation? Washing? Chemical application?
  • Is it coming in to direct contact with the edible portion of the produce?
  • Has it been tested for generic E.coli and total coliforms?

Examples of practices growers may adapt/adopt to minimize risk:

  • Converting from overhead irrigation to drip, if feasible.
  • Increasing the time interval between irrigation and harvest (exposure to UV has been found to kill bacteria).

Manure / Compost:

  • What is the source and how is it being used/stored?
  • Suppliers of compost should be able to provide growers with a Certificate of Analysis demonstrating composting standards are met. If composting yourself, ensure temperature is met and turning is happening according to composting rules.

Manure:

  • How you are using it, when are you using it, and for what crop.
  • How is it spread? – Side dressed? Broadcasted?
  • Is it incorporated into the soil?
  • Farmers paying record prices for fertilizer.What is the time interval between applying manure and harvesting?
  • Where is it being stored (for both manure & compost)?
  • Is risk of cross contamination with growing area/equipment/water source minimized?

Examples of practices growers may adapt/adopt to minimize risk:

  • Increase intervals between application & harvest (where possible).
  • National Organic Program (NOP) rules are: no interval for compost, 90 days for raw manure that does not touch the edible portion of the crop, and 120 days for raw manure that could touch the edible portion.
  • Minimize/eliminate contact between plant and manure.
  • Store away from growing areas. Keep it covered.

Land Use (both crop growing area and adjacent land):

  • Know what your growing area has been used for in the past and if it is prone to issues such as flooding.
  • Land converted to food production from industrial use may be at a higher risk of soil contamination.
  • What is happening adjacent to your growing area? Be cognizant of practices adjacent to your land and how they could be contaminating your crops.

Examples:

  • Avoca TerracesChemical application – drift
  • Barns used for animal housing have vents that may be blowing into your crop area.  (With feedlots and dairies, the manure can blow a long way.)

Examples of practices growers may adapt/adopt to minimize risk:

  • Setbacks – creating more distance between growing area and neighboring property.
  • Buffers – including hedgerows, vegetative ditches etc.

Animal Access – Companion/livestock/wild:

  • Do any animals have access to your growing area when in production?
  • Are you/do you monitor activity regularly?
  • What will you do if you find droppings/trampling/carcasses etc…?

Minimize risks by understanding your practices and adapting/adopting new ones where necessary and practical:

  • Don’t bring your companion animal into the growing area close to or during harvest.
  • Identify how you monitor prior to harvest to assess wildlife access.
  • Keep livestock out of growing area during the producing period (limit grazing to after harvest season).
  • Identify steps to deal with entry of animals in producing area.

Equipment, Tools & Buildings:

  • Monitor how tools and equipment are being used, how often are they cleaned, and how they are stored.
  • Understand how cleaning may be impacted if equipment/tools are being modified.
  • How are produce contact surfaces being cleaned? How often?
  • Is there any pest monitoring taking place in packing houses and buildings? If so, how?

Minimize risks by understanding your practices and adapting/adopting new ones where necessary and practical:

  • dsc07565Ensure tools & equipment are being used as intended.
  • Ensure equipment & tools are clean prior to use.

Employee Training (Health & Hygiene):

  • Ensure all employees are trained prior to starting work (particularly harvest) and that they understand the importance of what you are trying to achieve.
  • Make sure trash cans are available (outside of growing area) and employees use them.
  • Make portable toilets available, and ensure they are clean, and close by for use.
  • Supply hand washing stations (preferably outside of toilets) with liquid soap, clean water & single use paper towels.
  • Have a proper first aid kit fully stocked & available and ensure that employees are aware of where it is located, and steps in dealing with cuts and blood.
  • Make sure they understand where the designated* areas for things like eating, smoking, breaks, etc…  [*designated can be anywhere outside of the growing area].

Minimize risks by understanding your practices and adapting/adopting new ones where necessary and practical:

  • Training employees is essential, but there has to be some follow up training every so often (refresher training).
  • Use signage (wash your hands, use toilets etc…).

Traceability:

This is understanding and recording “one step forward and one step back”.  This means knowing where your inputs are coming from and which field/farm your crops were harvested from (one step back) and where you are selling that produce to (one step forward).

For more information, templates, or help with developing your GAP plan, contact Raman.


In partnership with the Wallace Center, the USDA is piloting a cooperative approach for farms of all sizes to demonstrate compliance with industry-accepted food safety standards. The Group Gap certification program (GGAP), as it’s called, is still being tested in the marketplace, but hopes to be more established and available for producers across the US by January 2016. Read our Q&A with Jeff Farbman, one of the program developers, and learn about this innovative idea and how you can initiate a program in your area.

FarmsReach: How does GGAP work?

Jeff Farbman: In GGAP, a food hub, support organization, or central business entity collaborates with a group of producers to establish site-specific best practices for complying with food safety standards. These best practices are formalized into a food safety quality management system (QMS) that can be measured, analyzed, reviewed, and continually improved upon.

The producers and central entity create this QMS document in concert to meet the needs of the group. In other words, it’s unique because it’s individualized. It takes into account varying production practices, different levels of food safety concern, and knowledge of how to deal with them.

10463058393_a0199aa9f9After establishing the QMS, the central entity coordinates training and on-farm implementation of the QMS procedures, monitors their ongoing usage, and manages all recording and reporting. A trained food safety professional provides support and education for each farm, and ultimately helps each producer get into compliance. Before USDA (the third-party certifier) does its audit, each farm will have undergone an internal audit by this food safety professional, ensuring that the provided training and coaching has been effective.

Once the USDA audits the written plan (the QMS) and audits its execution, they perform on-farm audits of a sample of the farms in the group. This can save time and resources, and is one benefit of the cooperative model. If the internal audits are serving their purpose, the farms in the group should already be in compliance, and it will only take a sample to understand if there are systemic issues needing to be addressed.

FR: How much does a QMS cost? Do I need to hire a new staff person to create a QMS and conduct internal audits?

JF: QMS development costs vary according to the scope and nature of each organization. Depending on the internal capacity of the central entity, they may need to hire additional staff to serve as farm trainers, internal inspectors, and QMS managers (although these duties do not have to be performed by three different people).

FR: If one producer fails an audit, does the whole system fail?

JF: No. Producer/product noncompliance falls within the scope of a GGAP QMS, and so each group can determine how they are best equipped to manage a failed on-farm audit. However, because the group does regular internal audits, areas of non-compliance are uncovered very early on. If a farmer doesn’t make corrections following a failed audit, it is up to the group to decide how to deal with that producer.

FR: Why do small to mid-sized producers benefit from this program?

JF: Food safety certification is not currently a legal requirement for producers. However, there is an increasing market demand for small-scale agricultural products, as well as many small producers interested in expanding their sales into wholesale markets. Both of these things require working with buyers, and some of these buyers require certification. If smaller scale producers want to expand their sales, certification will most likely be a requirement in that process.

gap1The GGAP program is also designed to provide peer-to-peer support and on-site training by a food safety expert. This unique component benefits producers because they can more easily move through the certification process and learn by doing. One of the difficulties small producers face in food safety certification is that they feel they need to become general food safety experts. GGAP allows the farmers to become food safety experts on their farm, with internal expertise to guide them. There will also likely be cost savings because of a reduced number of audits on individual farms.

FR: What are the initial steps a group can take to get started?

JF: 1. Learn about food safety. Every farmer should educate himself or herself on what the issues are. Then think about getting a group of producers together. If there is a group of farmers getting food safety certified, it is much easier to move into GGAP.

2. Begin to familiarize yourself with what a QMS entails, think about how it could be customized, and identify local resources that may be following one. QMS’ are well established in other industries, so there may be experts in your area who can give you guidance.

3. Look for investment dollars for the start-up costs. Aggregators such as food hubs, non-profits, or other businesses in your area could act as your central entity. For example, a committed buyer could decide to fund the startup costs of the group if you can commit to a certain volume of product per year. Look around for those connections.

For more information on Group GAP certification, contact Jeff


Familyfarmed.org’s on-farm Food Safety tool provides small to mid-size farmers a free, easy-to-use tool that creates a customized on-farm food safety plan based on user input (mostly yes and no answers). Most farmers would need to hire a consultant to create such a detailed plan, which can cost thousands of dollars on top of the fees required to become food safety certified. Using this tool, farmers can save money and time, and create a plan that directly addresses their specific needs. Read our Q&A with Conor Butkus of Family Farmed to learn more about why this tool may be a good start in formulating your customized food safety plan.

FarmsReach: Is this tool meant for farmers of all sizes?

Conor Butkus: This tool was created with small to mid-sized farmers in mind and is intended to help lower the costs and learning curve associated with implementing food safety best practices on the farm.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.47.59 PMFR: Farmers are busy around the clock. What makes this tool easy to use?

CB: The tool helps guide farmers through the process of creating a food safety manual through a step-by-step process that asks basic questions about the farm and its operations. Throughout the tool, information on best practices is easily accessible and templates for record-keeping are available, if needed. Additionally, the manual can be saved and revisited any number of times, for example, a plan started six weeks ago will still be stored in the system. In other words, a farmer can create the plan slowly over time.

FR: How does the tool work? Does it cost anything?

CB: The tool is free, but does requires setting up an account. This allows the system to save a users’ food safety plans so they can be edited later. Once an account is set up, the user simply clicks on the “Create a Food Safety Manual” tab and you’re taken directly to the tool. You can browse the various sections and revisit anything at a later date. The tool also asks a variety of questions for each section, most requiring only a yes or no answer. The sections are split into 11 risk areas, including such things as Work Health and Hygiene, Agricultural Water, and Animals and Pest Control. It’s all very easy to navigate.

FR: How can I use the results from the tool to improve the food safety on my farm? How can I use these results to prepare for an audit or get GAP certified?

CB: On-farm food safety manuals are required for an audit. The audit will first determine if the plan is appropriate and in compliance with required best practices for the farm. The on-site component of the audit will look at how the best practices and documentation practices have been implemented into daily operations on the farm. An on-farm food safety plan is an essential step to becoming food safety certified and passing your audit. Using this tool, the plans created will provide best practices information, which should be clearly implemented on the farm and documented. Many of the activities required in implementing food safety practices are common sense, and the on-farm food safety plan provides farmers with a tool to document and prove they’re in compliance.

FR: How do I set up an account and get started?

CB: Visit the website and click “Create a Food Safety Manual.” This will take you to the registration screen and allow you to get started!

For more information or questions about how to use the tool, contact Conor.


Thank you Raaman, Jeff and Conor for this very useful information! If you have questions, please get in touch with any of them. 

We’re continuing to expand the Marketing & Sales Toolkit, so stay tuned for more resources.

If you happened to miss them, check out our other features in the Marketing & Sales series:

If you have questions or words of wisdom about selling at the farmers market, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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