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Tree fruit producers hoping to sell their fruit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program or other federal feeding programs need to be audited through the agency’s Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices food-safety program.

The GHP program focuses on practices at the packing facility, while the GAP program focuses on farming practices. The USDA has required GHP certification from federal feeding program suppliers since 2004. As of July 1 last year, GAP certification also became a requirement for those bidding on federal food program purchases through the USDA’s Commodity Procurement branch.

Kevin Moffitt, president of the Pear Bureau Northwest, said that the USDA generally purchases fresh pears each year for school breakfast and lunch programs. Last August, it announced an offer to buy 28,800 boxes of fresh pears, but no Pacific Northwest pear shippers put in bids because the orchards had not gone through the GAP audit to qualify to supply the pears.

Rob Stewart, general manager with Stadelman Fruit Company in Zillah, Washington, said the USDA did not notify suppliers before it put the new requirement into place. When no one could supply the pears last August, the USDA had to cancel the bid and, as a result, lost the opportunity to provide more than a million pounds of fresh fruit for young people to eat, he said.

Stewart said his company’s packing facilities have been certified under GHP for several years, but he questioned the need for more government regulation at the orchard level. "We already have laws and rules governing what we can or can’t do on the farm, and they slip more rules in," he said. "They should be on our side, not ­working against us."

He noted that if a supplier sells directly to a school district, rather than through the USDA, GAP certification is not required.

The amount and timing of USDA pear purchases varies from year to year, depending on the agency’s budget, he noted. His company is still discussing whether it wants to have its orchards GAP certified. If the agency would guarantee to buy a certain volume of fresh pears each year, it might be worthwhile, he said, but the USDA could announce that it has decided to buy kumquats instead of pears after growers have gone through the trouble and expense of being audited.

Eva Lauve, who is in charge of food-safety certification at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, said the company’s growers are certified under GlobalGAP and the Safe, Quality Food Institute’s SQF 1000 program. Stemilt hoped that they would not need a different ­certification to sell through the USDA.

Audits

"We’ve been trying to work with the USDA the last three years to have them recognize either GlobalGAP or SQF 1000, so the grower would not have to go through multiple audits," she said.

The company has not been successful and is having orchards audited through the GAP program to qualify for school lunch purchases, she said.

Though required for those participating in USDA feeding programs, GAP certification is considered voluntary and is available to any fresh fruit and vegetable grower around the country. In Washington State, Washington State Department of Agriculture Federal-State Inspection Service staff conduct the audits on behalf of the USDA. The state has 22 auditors available, said Chuck Dragoo, district assistant manager for the WSDA in Yakima, ­Washington.

Jim Quigley, manager of the WSDA’s fruit and vegetable inspection division, said the USDA informed Washington tree fruit industry organizations ahead of time that it would be requiring GAP certification.

Both GAP and GHP are based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s "Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables." They cover agricultural and postharvest water uses, manure and biosolids, worker health and hygiene, field and packing facility sanitation, transportation, and ­traceback.

The charge for a GAP or GHP audit is $75 per audit hour. The total cost of auditing an orchard might be between $200 and $300, Quigley estimated, depending on its size and how well prepared the grower is for the audit. He felt the cost was very competitive with other food-safety programs.

Quigley noted that some major retailers accept GAP/GHP as a food-safety certification in addition to the USDA. "We think it’s a very credible program," he said. "USDA has put a lot of time and effort into it."

Harvest practices

Dragoo said growers need to start preparing immediately if they want to be certified for the 2008 crop year because it involves a lot of documentation to demonstrate that standard operating procedures are being followed. The audit must be completed while growers are harvesting the crop so that harvesting practices can be verified.

Sanitation and hygiene are a major part of the program, he said. The focus is on prevention of microbial contamination, rather than corrective action after contamination has occurred. The WSDA has training and educational resources to help producers prepare for the audit.

The department can provide training for warehouses or groups of growers and shippers, Quigley said. "We’re willing to help them develop their standard operating procedures and give them some training based on the auditing matrix."

To maintain certification, the audit must be done annually.

Dragoo said the WSDA conducted 97 GAP audits in 2007, up from only 16 the year before. The increase was primarily caused by potato processors requesting GAP verification from potato growers.

For information about the program, check the USDA’s Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/fv/fpbgapghp.htm.

To arrange an audit, contact Quigley at the WSDA in Olympia at (360) 902-1833, or call the Yakima office at (509) 249-6900, or Wenatchee at (509) 662-6161.