These “GAPs” in the Produce Industry Make for Safer Food Choices

Just-picked green zucchini squash waits to be loaded onto a processing trailer at Kirby Farms in Mechanicsville, VA

GAP certification can make it easier for commercial buyers to find farmers and producers that meet food-safety requirements and offer consumers greater access to fresh produce.

July is the height of summer grilling season and throughout the month USDA is highlighting changes made to the U.S. food safety system over the course of this Administration. For an interactive look at USDA’s work to ensure your food is safe, visit the USDA Results project on Medium.com and read Chapter Seven: Safer Food and Greater Consumer Confidence.

Although farmers and food businesses have anywhere from several months to three years or more before they will need to comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new food safety rules, many producers are asking how they can bring their operation into compliance – and many buyers are beginning to ask how they’ll know if suppliers are following the rules.

USDA and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) are working with industry and other government agencies to help ensure that stakeholders in the produce industry know the answers to these questions.

Since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed in 2011, staff in the AMS Specialty Crops Program have been working closely with the FDA on the Produce Safety Rule required by the law. We also have been working with industry to be sure they understand how this rule affects their operations and how we can help them comply with the rule.

Our voluntary audit programs Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) can help verify that growers, handlers and others have taken measures to reduce the risk of microbial contamination by adhering to FDA Guidance and generally recognized industry best practices. Our recently introduced GroupGAP program allows farmers, food hubs, and other marketing organizations to pool resources for food safety training and to share the cost of GAP certification.

We are continuing to work with the FDA as we align our GAP and GHP programs with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

In 2015, USDA provided more than 3,800 GAP audits. As more operations participate in these audits, it will become easier for commercial buyers to find farmers and producers that meet food safety requirements and offer consumers greater access to quality, locally sourced fresh produce.

In addition to the fee-for-service programs, AMS offers Specialty Crops Block Grants (SCBG) to educate and train producers, buyers and others about GAP and GHP audits and how they can help them meet FSMA requirements. Since 2006, AMS has funded about 107 GAP and Good Handling Practices (GHP) outreach and training projects. We’ve also worked with state Departments of Agriculture on about 116 GAP/GHP cost share projects.

So, while the rules may be changing, GAP, GHP and GroupGAP—as well as the educational and training resources available through Specialty Crops Block Grants—continue to help producers, commercial buyers, retailers and consumers gain access to safer foods and more variety from American farms.