Farmers who are seeking to become GAPs certified in order to satisfy the requirements of potential or existing buyers have an easy decision (though a lot of work) ahead of them. But for other growers, the decision between GAPs certification and a well-documented Practical Food Safety plan may not be quite so obvious. And for members of VVBGA (the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association), there is also the option of the CAPS program to consider if a self-certification meets the needs of the farm's buyers. We've gathered the information below to assist produce growers in the decision process, and are available to answer questions and assist you along the way.
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, were developed in 1998 as voluntary guidelines for produce farmers to reduce the risk of microbial contamination related to food borne illnesses on their farms. They were based on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s Guide to Minimizing Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Produce. However, after a dramatic increase in the number of food borne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce beginning in the mid-2000's, some larger buyers, especially supermarkets, began requiring their vendors to be audited by a third party to certify that they were following Good Agricultural Practices.
Today there are private third party GAPs Audits offered by private companies, as well as a USDA GAPs Audit. Buyers will tell farmers which type of Audit they require.
The USDA GAPs Audit consists of seven sections. Each section is composed of questions pertaining to food safety practices which are scored. A grower must get a score of 80% to pass each section. If you are seeking GAPs certification to meet a buyer's requirement, the buyer will tell you which sections of the Audit you must pass.
Currently, only a few buyers in Vermont are requiring GAPs Certification. You need to have a GAPs Audit if you intend to sell to one of these buyers:
Hannafords and Price Chopper currently require all growers to be certified in the the first three sections of a USDA GAPs Audit for at least one crop.
J.P. Sullivan and Red Tomato - These buyers have their own third party food safety audit. You should contact them for more information.
Black River Produce is asking vendors to have a traceability system and to fill out a checklist of food safety practices that is based on GAPs principles, but they have not yet required their growers to undergo a third party food safety inspection.
Creating a GAPs plan for your farm consists of three stages:
The Center is available to help you with each of these stages. Email Ginger Nickerson to ask questions or to set up a time to meet.
UVM Extension has developed two approaches to help growers who are not intending to become GAPs-certified develop a an on-farm food safety plan. The first is available to any grower, with the materials compiled into a Practical Produce Safety Manual. VVBGA members have the additional option of considering the CAPS program. Either plan will still give growers the benefits of a document explaining their practices to share with customers without having to go through a GAPs Audit. You can use these materials if you direct market your produce and none of your buyers are currently requiring GAPs certification.
With the increased national attention on food safety, and buyers' insurers' concerns about liability, we expect that more and more buyers will be asking growers about their food safety plans. For example, although currently there are no Federal rules that require farms that direct market to schools to be GAP certified, some school districts and hospitals are considering asking growers for either a GAPs Audit or a food safety plan. For this reason, we are encouraging all Vermont produce growers to develop some type of food safety plan, even if you do not sell to a buyer who is requiring GAPs certification. Even if you only direct market your produce, having a food safety plan and following good hygiene and sanitation practices can benefit your operation in a number of ways:
With coordination from UVM Extension, the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers' Association (VVBGA) has their own Community Accreditation for Produce Safety (CAPS) program.
With the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) set to drive market and consumer expectations, the purpose of VVBGAs Accreditation is to proactively establish a consistent, practical approach for Vermont produce farmers to reduce food safety risks and to maintain market credibility even if they are exempt from complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
More information about these "Kitchen Table Produce Safety" opportunities is available here.
This work session is specifically designed for VVBGA member farmers who want to write a Practical Produce Safety Plan quickly and efficiently, with immediate feedback and without having to drive far to a workshop. These work-sessions are small (2-5 farmers) and are convened on demand, as schedule and interest allows. To schedule a session in your area contact Hans Estrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-257-7967.
If potential participants would like to learn about risks and best practices in addition to writing a PPS plan, you are welcome to register for a day-long Practical Produce workshops through the Center for Sustainable Agriculture. (Email Ginger Nickerson for more information about upcoming full-day Practical Produce Safety workshops.)