In my first post concerning food safety, using a stripped-down interpretation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) as a lens, I considered the points of pathogen contamination on the farm and briefly introduced some of the precautions and practices used to mitigate risk. In this second post we will passively touch on some of the same practices, but from a different perspective. I will not delve into the practices themselves, rather provide a summary-version of the questions asked by USDA inspectors during GAPs audits. The hope is that readers will come away with a framework through which to objectively and critically consider the production and handling practices on their farms and to start the process of reducing unnecessary risks with commonsense solutions.
Accordingly, the questions below are organized into categories similar to those in the audits administered by USDA. I have also provided links to resources at the bottom - a Food Safety Plan template from Penn State and the USDA GAPs Audit Checklist among them - for those interested in pursuing GAPs certification or seeking more detail in general. As I stressed in my previous post, GAPs certification is not for every farm, but the practices, regardless of marketing ambitions or scale, provide useful guidance to improve food safety on any operation.
The general section of the GAPs audit includes questions ranging from the traceability of produce leaving the farm to worker health and hygiene. Again, while time intensive and seemingly unneeded for some farms, having protocols in place serves to foster the formation of good production and handling habits which in turn helps to limit contamination risks. Of course, the need for a plan to trace produce varies depending on the marketing outlets used. Similarly, the necessity for worker toilet facilities, hygiene oriented signage and the like vary with the size of the farm and number of employees. Many of the requirements for GAPs certification depend on documentation and record keeping. Still, the questions should prompt careful consideration of the day-to-day activities on your farm. General questions include those similar to the following:
- Do you have a documented food safety plan for your farm?
- What do you do to address food safety on your farm?
- Is there toilet access on the farm? If not, what do you do?
- Is there a place to wash your hands?
- Are all staff trained on proper sanitation and hygiene?
- Is there access to potable water for drinking?
- Is there a special spot for eating and smoking away from produce handling areas?
- Do you have a policy of promptly treating cuts and abrasions?
- Is there an easily accessible and well-stocked first aid kit?
- Are all staff using fertilizer or pesticides trained in proper use?
The Farm Review section shifts the focus to the production practices used on the farm. It broadly includes questions about water quality, irrigation practices, the presence of livestock, and soil amendments ranging from treated sewage to composted manures. These questions start to get at the complexity of - as well as the practices that can enhance - food safety on the farm. They include the following:
- What is the source of irrigation water (Surface, Well, Municipal)?
- How are crops irrigated (drip, sprinkler, flood, or other)?
- Have you conducted or obtained the results of a water test?
- Do you use compost or manure on your fields?
- What do you do to manage your compost/manure?
- Is your farm located near or adjacent to dairy, livestock, or poultry production facilities(neighbors or your own)?
- If yes, what measures are taken to restrict access of livestock to the source or delivery system of crop irrigation water?
- What measures are taken to reduce the opportunity for wild and/or domestic animals to enter your fields?
This section deals with harvest, packing and transportation of produce out of the field. Again, depending on the scale of the operation, some questions are not relevant. However, thinking through these questions will help you recognize gaps in your harvesting procedure and allow you to address them in ways to further mitigate risks.
- What are the possible sources of contamination in the field?
- What are your harvest containers made out of?
- How often do you clean and sanitize your harvest containers and knives?
- Is all harvesting equipment and machinery in good repair?
- Are harvesting containers only used for carrying produce?
- What is the procedure for product contaminated with petroleum, pesticides, or other contaminates?
- Are efforts made to remove excess dirt or mud from produce and containers?
- Is product moving out of the field uniquely identified for potential traceability needs?
When considering post-harvest practices it is useful to see what other farms are doing. Knowing what other wash stations look like, the construction materials, and how different set ups improve work flow can help you to fine tune your own handling, washing, packing and storage practices. Again, the general questions regarding hygiene and sanitation are always relevant. Depending on the farm, this may be the last time the farmer or their staff directly handles the produce - making sure that good production practices are not undermined by poor hygiene and sanitation is critical. Some questions likely to come up in an audit are:
- How is produce protected after harvest, before washing and packing?
- What is the source of water for the wash station? Has it been tested?
- Is water treated to reduce microbial contamination?
- How often do you clean water-contact surfaces, such as dump tanks, wash tanks, and coolers?
- Is your washing and packing facility protected from contamination? Is it covered?
- Are washing and packing areas clean and free of debris and standing water?
- Are chemicals not approved for and used in washing kept away from area?
- Are only new or sanitized containers used for packing produce?
- How do you exclude pests and animals from washing and packing facilities?
Keeping your product under the right climatic condition and free of pests is just as much a matter of preserving quality and making money on your investment of labor and inputs as it is avoiding an incidence of foodborne illness. Questions for consideration:
- How do you store your produce after harvest and before transport?
- Is the storage facility clean and regularly maintained?
- Are packing containers stored in a way that protects from contamination?
- What measures are taken to exclude animals or pests from storage facilities?
- Are thermometers in climate-controlled rooms checked for accuracy?
- Does condensation from refrigeration come in contact with produce?
Produce leaves the farm, arrives at the market, warehouse, or other sales outlet, and the transaction is completed. Thus, ensuring that your product reaches its destination in the same pathogen free condition that it (hopefully) left the farm in is the final concern relevant to many growers. Control in maintaining a food safe environment during transportation depends largely on the distribution methods used by your farm. Whether you deliver all your product yourself or rely on a third-party, the brief questions below are important:
- Is produce loaded with any potentially contaminating products?
- Is a specified temperature required during transit? How is this maintained?
It is important to recognize that food safety is achieved through the aggregation of many complimentary practices and precautions, but that it requires only a single breakdown in your system to cause a microbial contamination that leads to foodborne illness. While the documentation, record keeping and planning needed to meet GAPs requirements may seem burdensome, as with everything on the farm, having the right procedures in place can greatly improve efficiency. Keeping a watchful eye on food safety is just another part of running a successful farm. Often the food safe choice has broader benefits. The improved water efficiency of drip irrigation, the reduced crop loss and cosmetic benefits of keeping mammalian pests out of your fields, and improved workflow at a well-designed wash station come to mind.
Again, it isn't about meeting GAPs to add and fulfill another bureaucratic requirement, but rather in order to maintain a safe food supply while reducing risk and liability of farmers. The chance to maybe improve your operational practices beyond the scope of food safety is a bonus.
- UMass Amherst's Food Safety Manual has just about everything you might want to know about food safety and GAPs as well as a ton of downloadable material so you can start implementing practices, writing a plan, posting signage, and improving food safety on your farm
- Go right to the source - GAPs is based on the FDA's “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables”
- The GAPs Audit is designed to assess efforts to minimize the risk of contamination by microbial pathogens. See what the USDA's checklist and grading system looks like: "Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices Audit Verification Checklist"
- Thinking about writing up a food safety plan? Check out the UMass Amherst link above or: Penn State Extension's Food Safety Plan Template
Food safety is an information intensive topic and these two posts barely touch upon the majority of that which is available. While the links in both posts will direct you to great resources on food safety, the posts themselves are a bit limited in scope. Feel free to use the comments section and start a conversation, ask for more in depth information or for more detailed resources. What additional information about food safety would you find most useful? What do you see as the biggest barriers to becoming more food safe on your farm?
-Billy McKerchie abandoned his farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate NY to pursue a MS in Agriculture, Food, & Environment from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. He still occasionally blogs at sowloud.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter at @sowloud.
This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2010-49200-06201.