2012 22.4 Tools for USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Program

WSDA launches “Bridging the GAPs” project to support Washington farmers

The new USDA GAP program has raised many questions in the Washington State agricultural community. WSDA’s Bridging the GAPs coordinator Tricia Kovacs provides an overview of the audit program, talks about WSDA’s outreach tools, and answers common questions from Tilth Producers members.

What is GAP?

The USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) audit program is a voluntary onfarm food safety certification program. Certification will show buyers that a farm has passed an audit based on best agricultural practices to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. A successful audit shows commitment by management and employees to follow and maintain guidelines to help minimize the potential risk for microbial contamination of produce.

Produce buyers increasingly require third party food safety certifications of growers who wish to sell into many venues, from retail stores and distributors to institutions and farmers markets. Small farms face pressure to become GAP/GHP certified in order to continue selling into these markets, though the certification is not currently required under state or federal regulations. With the passage of the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), many have asked whether GAPs will become a required certification, and whether their farm will qualify for an exemption. FDA has not yet issued the Produce Safety Rules that will be required to implement the FSMA on the ground, and a release date is not set. WSDA is awaiting the release of these rules and will provide information and guidance to Washington farms as soon as it is available.

Bridging the GAPs

In the meantime, WSDA has launched a project called Bridging the GAPs to provide information and support for those working on food safety planning and considering a GAP/GHP audit, specifically on smaller and diversified farms. Meeting the GAP/GHP standards may be daunting for these farms, due to the potential costs associated with developing and maintaining documentation, and the possible need to adapt infrastructure and systems to meet the standards.

The Bridging the GAPs goal is to improve food safety and develop GAP/GHP education and outreach services. The project team will identify and share best practices relating to onfarm food safety for small, mid-sized, and diversified fruit and vegetable farms. Regardless of the details of the upcoming FDA produce safety rules, food safety efforts based on GAP/GHP will serve farmers well when they start to implement the new rules. WSDA invites and values feedback and ideas from stakeholders around the state. More information, as well as links to additional resources and toolkits, is available on the WSDA website at http://agr.wa.gov/Inspection/GAPGHP/. WSDA staff will be presenting on Good Agricultural Practices certification at the 2012 Tilth Producers Conference in Port Townsend, and will launch an online FAQ in October 2013.

Questions from Tilth Members

1) Does taking a GAP training being held throughout the state make you certified?
No. USDA GAP/GHP certification is only available after successfully completing an on-farm audit by USDA or licensed Federal/State auditor. In Washington, WSDA is the licensed USDA audit provider. The auditor will use the USDA GAP checklist (available online at http://tinyurl.com/bwzsmm3) to review farm food safety documentation and practices. Because the program is voluntary, farms request an audit from WSDA. There are businesses providing third party food safety certification and some buyers will require specific private food safety audits rather than the USDA GAP/GHP.

2) Are farms that sell below a certain dollar amount exempt from certification requirement?
Until the FDA releases produce safety rules and sets the requirements and exemptions, GAP and other food safety certifications are completely voluntary for fruits and vegetables. Currently it is the buyers that require certification, and they are the ones to decide if there are exemptions to their requirements.

3) Are there any cost-share or grant programs to help small farms with costs of meeting certification requirements?
We do not know of any cost-share or grant programs specifically for implementing food safety measures on farms. In terms of cost share, at least one foodservice management company has stated that they would be willing to pay a price for local food that incorporated the cost of meeting their food safety standards. This would not be available up front, however.

There are many resources and toolkits available online with templates and planning documents to assist in the development of on-farm food safety plans and procedures, as well as signage, checklists, and worker training videos for download and/or purchase. Links to these programs are included in the sidebar on WSDA’s Bridging the GAPs website (http://agr.wa.gov/inspection/GAPGHP/).
4) Are requirements the same for all types of farms?
While the safety goals and the audit checklist are the same for all farms, GAP/GHP audits are based on the idea that a farm has reviewed its practices and created a food safety plan and practices that address the risks and situations specific to that farm’s operations. The auditor will review the farms Food Safety Plan and Standard Operating Procedures, and then observe and review documents to see that the plan and procedures are being routinely implemented to minimize contamination of foods in the fields, and in the harvest, cleaning, packing, and shipping process.

The solutions for reducing risk on one farm may vary greatly between one farm and the next, due to the differences inherent in the various kinds of farms.

5) If I have a certified organic farm am I already meeting some of the requirements?
GAP certification has a different goal than organic certification, in that it is specifically aimed at reducing microbial contamination of farm produce. Though there are some overlaps in requirements for maintaining compost records and time required between raw manure application and planting, most of the standards are separate. Organic producers may benefit in that they already have record-keeping systems in place, and would be adding to an existing system, rather than starting from a blank slate.

Tags: Food Safety, Gap, GAPS, GHP, Good Agricultural practices, Good Handling Practices