Mind the G.A.P…
Good Agricultural Practices that is!
Food safety is the driving force behind the development of guidelines for farmers and those working in the food production system. Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, are the production and post-harvest guidelines that reduce the risk of food borne disease contamination. These guidelines involve all the stages of food production – starting with the soil and water and hands and surfaces – that the produce touches as all potential sources of bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. Since fresh produce is often consumed raw, the risk of food borne illness is greater. Also, it is difficult to detect pathogens prior to marketing and it is not possible to sanitize produce so that it’s entirely free of harmful microorganisms, which makes prevention the best strategy. A National GAP’s Program was established in 1999 and based at Cornell University with collaborators in 26 states. Cornell has developed principles for GAP and they are outlined in the Good Agricultural Practices Self Audit Workbook which has become one of the core pieces for GAP training along with Food Safety Begins on the Farm: Good Agricultural Practices for Fresh Fruits & Vegetables.
Some of the concerns that are behind the move to GAP are based in an increase in the outbreaks of Salmonella and E coli bacteria on produce and an increase in the amount of fresh produce consumed. Consumer preferences have been shifting to consuming more meals outside of the home and minimally-processed foods. As large sections of the US population age, they become more vulnerable to food borne illness, as do those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and young children. The global economy disperses vast amounts of fruits and produce into the US marketplace and Global GAP protocols provide oversight.
GAP guidelines greatly reduce the potential for contamination by addressing all the possible ways that produce can become contaminated. Farmers look at their soil and the use of manure management to ensure that their soil remains “clean.” All the water used on the farm must be potable, that is, of drinkable quality. Water is tested periodically to maintain quality levels. All workers must use good hygiene both in the field and in the packing house and this “clean hands” protocol extends to customers at U-Pick operations where washing stations should be available. Finally, all surfaces that come in contact with produce must be washed and sanitized on a regular basis. Compliance with all of these protocols is established through good record keeping—this has become a critical part of GAP.
Currently, compliance with GAP is voluntary and each state may establish their own requirements for a GAP Program, but the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to release specific GAP regulations soon and all states will have to be in compliance with federal guidelines. Presently, most states approach GAP through an educational training for farmers and then the farmers complete a self-audit. For large growers, a third step brings in a third party to evaluate and certify the farm. The good news for Capital Region consumers is that New York State farmers are well-versed in GAP guidelines and many have gone on to achieve GAP certification.
Susan Pezzolla, horticulture educator, is Community Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Albany County. To reach Sue call 765.3516 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.