Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for food safety in the fruit industry: Facts and fiction
Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.
Food safety has become a major concern for buyers and shippers of fresh produce all over the United States and internationally. To mitigate these concerns, they in turn are demanding from fresh produce providers to be GAP certified through third party auditing companies that provide this service. For example, since July 1, 2007, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program demands that fresh apple providers should be GAP certified under their own GAP program. Retailers have also followed the USDA trend for food safety. Wal-Mart stores announced that it has become the first U.S. grocery chain to require suppliers of its private label and other food products such as produce, meat, fish, poultry and ready-to-eat foods to have their factories certified against one of the internationally recognized Global Food Safety Initiative standards (February 26, 2008). Spartan Stores have also demanded their fresh produce suppliers to be GAP certified by a third party (August 15, 2008). Others like Gerber (Nestle Co.) are demanding fresh produce providers to abide to their own GAP requirements.
For fresh produce buyers and retailers their own demands are clear and they are enforcing them, but for suppliers and small underserved producers there is great concern and confusion. During the 2008 Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Marketing EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan, MSU Extension conducted a survey among 208 fruit producers gathered at the concurrent session on “Generally Accepted Practices, Good Handling Practices and Third Party Audits.” The intention was to gather feedback from producers to design programs to meet their needs. The results indicated large numbers of fruit producers are unfamiliar with the GAP concept and how to apply it to food safety on their production units. There was also confusion among them as to which GAP for food safety programs to follow. This confusion has produced a series of misconceptions about who needs to be GAP certified, what is required to be certified and how to access the resources to develop their individual GAP manual in advance to the process of certification.
One of the fictions circulating among growers is that the GAP certification is mandated by the US Department of Agriculture. The truth is that the GAP certification requirement is requested by retailers and is a voluntary program. The USDA requires GAP compliance only in those cases where growers are selling produce for the USDA food assistance program. However, if you are not selling to the USDA or to retailers that do not demand a GAP certification, you do not need to be GAP certified.
Small operations like U-picks are not required to be GAP certified. However, as a matter of policy to protect its prestige and possible food safety problems, a U-Pick farm is recommended to have in place some sort of GAP guidelines.
Another common talk is that the only accepted third party audit is the one performed by the state Department of Agriculture (MDA in Michigan). This is not true either. The third party audit could be conducted by any of the audit companies approved by the buyer of your produce (MDA, Primus Lab, etc). But, in those cases where you provide fruit to multiple buyers, you may be required to be certified by more than one third party company. For example, some buyers prefer a certification from the USDA, but others may prefer the Primus Lab certification.
There are other common misconceptions related to the preparation for third party audit. Very often growers attending a one or two-hour seminar on GAPs for food safety left the meeting room thinking that they are ready to be GAP Certified.
The truth is that preparedness for GAP audit and certification requires a lot more than a one-hour seminar. Why? Because Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is a systems approach for food safety risk management. As such, it involves multiple technology packages, such as integrated pest management, water management and etcetera, that can’t be fully grasped through a traditional one-hour workshop. To master these concepts, producers need a sustained long-term educational training program that includes both classroom lectures and hands-on educational training.
In addition to understanding the concept of GAP for food safety and how to implement it, growers need to learn how to develop their own food safety manuals. This is especially difficult if there are not standard GAP guidelines developed for the particular fruit crop being produced. The food safety manual is a requirement that must be developed previous to the audit. Some companies like Primus Lab and NSF-Davis Fresh provide technical assistance to their clients to develop the food safety manual. But they charge an extra fee for this service. Thus, preparing for the third party audit could be a costly process (i.e. the USDA inspector fee is $95 per hour, approximately).
Michigan’s producers, in particular small producers, will find it very difficult to meet these new market standards, without affordable educational programs to help them make sound food safety risk management decisions. Therefore, the MSU Extension Fruit Area of Expertise team is in the process of implementing an educational food safety training program for the Michigan blueberry and apple industry, currently in the forefront of GAP for food safety requirements. We have developed GAP manuals for food safety for these mayor fruit crops and are available for downloading at this site. In addition, we are providing a two-day workshop for those growers/packers/shippers interested in preparing and develop their own food safety manuals in preparation for the GAP audit.