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Increasingly, food safety concerns are prompting produce buyers to require growers to demonstrate that they follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). If you’ve been in the commercial vegetable production business for a while, you are likely already familiar with Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and the importance of getting GAP-certified. If you are not familiar with GAPS, please check out the Introduction to GAPs page before continuing.
If you are already GAP-certified and your yearly audit covers broccoli, you’re all set, for now. Just be sure to review your food safety plan annually, and check in with your buyer regularly to make sure your usual audit is still the preferred one.
If you are GAP-certified for other vegetables but need to add broccoli to your certification, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the somewhat stricter requirements for leafy greens (broccoli falls into that category for food safety purposes) and make any necessary adjustments to your production. Your buyer can let you know what audit and auditor is appropriate. Also, let the auditing service know when you expect to be harvesting broccoli, as they will need to visit the farm during harvest.
If you are not yet GAP-certified, make it a goal to get certified in your first production year. It will take a bit of work in the beginning, but the process will be much easier in future years, as good agricultural practices become the norm for your farm.
There are four main steps to GAPS certification.
1. Develop a food safety plan for your farm.
Anytime anyone (you, your workers, visitors) or anything (water, equipment, storage containers, soil amendments, etc.) contacts your broccoli, there is the potential for contamination. Your food safety plan will describe how production happens on your farm, identify those points where contamination is possible, and outline the best “standard operating procedures” (SOPs) to minimize that risk. It will also describe a traceability system and recall process and designate someone to be the food safety officer for your operation.
Plenty of resources are available to help with this step, so you won’t be starting from scratch. The National Good Agricultural Practices Program website is an excellent source of information. Local Extension programs offer templates or workshops to guide you through the process, or you can hire a private consultant to write the plan for you. Buyers may have additional requirements, so it is important to check in with them as you begin the process.
2. Train your workers. Since they will be handling broccoli and carrying out the day-to-day activities on your farm, your workers will need food safety training in a language they understand. The training will cover personal hygiene (especially the importance of hand-washing and personal cleanliness and how to handle illness or injuries) and how to carry out the standard operating procedures described in your food safety plan. Signs (again, in the native language of your workers) can be posted around the farm to reinforce good hygiene practices and to identify locations of supplies and equipment.
3. Implement the plan and keep records. Your workers are trained, signs are posted, facilities are stocked, and any needed repairs have been made to equipment or facilities. Now you are ready to fully work the SOPs you developed into the daily routine of your farm. An important part of your operation will be record keeping to document worker training, water testing, soil amendments, facility and equipment cleaning, and other activities that are part of your SOPs. Whoever provided help with the development of your food safety plan will also be able to point you toward templates for logs that you can use to record these activities. Now is also the time to test your traceability system with a mock recall.
4. Pass a yearly GAPs audit. Once the previous three steps have been accomplished, all that’s left is passing a yearly GAPs audit. First you’ll need to choose an independent, third party service that offers an audit that is acceptable to your buyer. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service conducts GAPs audits, as do a number of private companies (the United Fresh Produce Association website has a link to a list of some auditors). There is a charge for a food safety audit, so it is worth checking with a few services to see which will be most economical for you (but still acceptable to your buyer).
To prepare for the audit, you can perform a self-audit to check for practices, facilities, or policies that might need correctin. You should be able to download an audit checklist from the website of your intended auditing service and use that to evaluate your farm. (For example, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has some checklists on its website. Just keeping in mind that not all sections may apply to your farm. The checklist will also indicate what documents and records you should be keeping. Local Extension programs and farm associations sometimes assist with self-audits, and many private consultants offer the service for a fee.
Once you are ready for the official audit, contact the auditing service (at least two weeks in advance) to schedule an initial visit to your farm by the auditors. If your farm passes this first audit, a second, unannounced verification audit will happen later in the season, during the broccoli harvest. You’ll become GAP-certified if you achieve a passing score on both audits.
For a glimpse of what broccoli production will look like once GAPs are implemented, see A GAPS Tour of the Broccoli Farm.