Food Safety on the Farm:
Overview of USDA Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP) Food Safety Standards
Farm Grown and Certified Safe
Food safety on the farm starts with standards important to all farmers. Whether you sell directly to consumers, to a wholesaler, or even to a processing facility, food safety certification assures your buyers that your product is safe to consume! The USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices are one of the food safety certification programs that farmers can choose to implement on their farm. Some buyers may require this certification, and in the future this certification may be required of all producers. For now, it is mainly enforced on larger farms (not required if you are selling less than 25,000 in produce or if you sell less than 500,000 in produce and you sell to end users).
However, many buyers like to see that you are taking steps to keep records and can help buyers at farmers markets. Make sure that produce is coming from a clean, well-managed environment. Many farms are voluntarily certified. Good business practice is to be proactive and install your plan with proper documentation. This certification ensures that you maintain a clear record of how food was handled and stored and give proper attention to best practices in food safety. Also, if you plan to expand beyond just farmers markets and direct sales, this certification will increase your ability to gain entry into wholesale and retail markets.
Guidelines Vary by State and Product
In general, any food crop or any crop that may come in contact with food products are required and recommended for certification. For example, although pumpkins are used for decoration, they are certified because they are stored in same area with food products. For diversified growers, you can usually have one certification for many crops, but it depends on your state. You can also choose just to have one of the crops on your farm certified (if you sell to a buyer who requires but they only buy one crop).
If you are unsure if you should pursue certification then the main thing you need to look at are your goals and your buyers. Usually for a farmer’s market it is dependent on your state regulations and Consumer Protection Services. Also, some markets have their own regulations that must be followed. If you are selling to restaurants, in some states it is handled by the Department of Agriculture and in others it may be handled by the Department of Health.
As stated previously, if you are selling to wholesale/retail markets then they will more than likely already have food safety standards established that they will share with you when you begin working with them. This is where GAP/GHP standards will commonly come into play as guidelines. If you are unsure of the requirements, you should talk to your buyers or contact your local extension agent to find out the exact guidelines required in your state.
Organizing for the Certification Process
The first step to being certified is to appoint someone to be the food safety coordinator that will oversee the plan, attend continuing education workshops, and ensure all parts of the plan are organized and on schedule. This is someone who knows the operation well and knows how to organize the process. The next step is to begin outlining and documenting your practices. You may also have to tweak and change some of your practices if they are not in line with the requirements. Usually successful farmers are already using safe practices, but the plan helps to ensure that you are.
Typically, many practices do not require change, but they should undergo the documentation process. After creating the plan there may be some things that need to change in your operation. It is important to implement and document these changes. You then must set up an audit where an auditor will come out to your farm and ensure your plan reflects your practices. They will also complete a random audit throughout your growing season to ensure you are following the plan. This will happen annually as long as you wish to be certified.
Keep the Food Safety Manual Up to Date
Your food safety manual is very important and is what the auditor will look at. It helps to keep all of your documents and records organized. This provides easy access when the auditor is looking for your records. The sections are as follows: Written Plan of Action, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), Record/Log Sheets, and Supporting Documents. The USDA website listed below provides many resources and helpful information. The onfarmfoodsafety.org website below has great resources. It’s a program that will get you started collecting information and organizing your very own food safety plan!
Lydia is a graduate student studying plant and soil science at the University of Kentucky. Her project focuses on soil nutrient management and poultry manure use. Growing up on a farm in Nelson County, VA Lydia helped raise wholesale pumpkins, apples, corn, and soybeans. Her experience includes working in food safety certification. She started a retail sector with pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers, Indian corn, and sweet corn for a pick-your-own operation. Lydia enjoys home vegetable gardening and loves to learn about different management and marketing strategies for small scale production systems.