Evidenced by the recent recall of ground beef from the huge beef processor Tyson Fresh Meats, it’s clear that work needs to be done to make sure our food supply is safe. But what is unclear, is the best way to do this that fits the needs of consumers, processors and farmers of all sizes and types.
An important element of food safety is the prevention of possible problems. Through interactions at farmers markets or at our CSA’s, many of us have fondly grown to know and trust the people who grow our food. Farmers have long had the best interest of their customers in mind. But now, farmers can widely demonstrate this dedication to producing the best product with greater ease.
Last week, an online tool was released by FamilyFarmed.org, in concert with the USDA, to assist farmers in gaining certification that they are growing and handling food in the safest manner.
While its crucial to make sure our foods won’t make the public sick, there are other important pressures in our food supply that need to be addressed. We need more small farms growing food near or within our urban centers to make sure we have access to fresh local food. Big wholesale produce buyers who want to support local food need to be assured that the foods they are supplying have been raised in a safe manner. And this has to be accomplished without over-burdening the small to mid-sized farmer.
The FamilyFarmed.org On-Farm Food Safety Project working with the USDA, farmers, producers and buyers and the FDA have developed a food safety plan tool that makes it easier for farms of all sizes to gain what’s known as a GAP certification.
Interest in changing the focus from reactive recall of tainted food to a preventative approach was codified in Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. A farm can qualify for GAP, or Good Agricultural Practices, certification by creating a food safety manual specific to the farm and documenting adherence to the described plan, followed by an inspection by the USDA. To many farmers, this seemed a daunting task. It required many hours of computer and writing time that would take away from working the farm. It’s possible, but expensive, to hire a consultant to write a customized GAP manual.
This new tool simplifies the GAP certification process not unlike Turbo Tax simplifies filing taxes. Likened to Turbo Tax for GAP standards by Michelle Smith, Senior Policy Analyst with the FDA, the food safety plan tool enables farmers to write a plan for their farm through a series of yes and no decision tree questions. Farmer Steve Murray, with Murray Family Farms, said he was able to complete his plan in 6 hours. His farm did a trial run of the tool and easily passed inspection.
GAP certification is increasingly important for mid-sized farms like Murray’s that need to sell to big wholesale producers. Murray said he would not have been able to sell his 2012 springs cherry crop without a GAP certification, as more wholesale food purchasers require food safety assurances.
While GAP certification is voluntary, changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act are expected in early 2012. It’s not known what will be required of farms that host CSA’s or sell to farmers markets. But it is known, that as interest grows in providing locally grown, sustainable farm products, big local food buyers like Chipotle, the leading restaurant buyer of local meats and one of several of familyfarmed.org partners on the On-Farm Safety project, will buy with confidence from local farms that have a GAP certification.
Another benefit of the farm safety plan tool is the process of food safety exploration and training that it offers. The process of the yes and no questions and manual that is generated from, leads the farmer through a safety check of his own operations. After the manual is complete, it becomes a tool for training employees as well.
Small farms and folks favoring a deep connection between the farmer and the consumer may still feel that GAP certification is something for the big players. But in fact, the on-line food safety tool – since it’s free and easy – does level the playing field. Mid to large sized farms, in the past, were more able to afford to pay consultation fees nearing $5,000 to apply for GAP certification. Now, during a snowy winter day, small farmers can develop a customized GAP manual for their own farm.
I’m hoping for feed back from my farmer friends on this post and will actively agitate several of you for comment on this. To me, it’s clear. Since we need more small, multi-crop, multi-product and value-added farms near our towns, our small farmers need to be able to sell to big wholesalers or even cooperatives to make the process seamless for restaurants and even big entities like school districts.
Hey, I’d help 20 small farmers through this process without complaint if it meant that my son had access to their products in his school lunch. I love the big picture idea that easier GAP certification- thanks to FamilyFarmed.org and the USDA – could allow small farms to play with the big farms.