The Washington State Horticultural Association is developing a tool to simplify and standardize the food safety auditing process for the state’s growers.

The program, called Growers Response to Agricultural Safe and Sustainable Practices (Gras2p), aims to help growers prepare for any of the audits now commonly required by retailers and other buyers while at the same time demonstrating the industry’s commitment to producing safe food in a sustainable manner.

Gras2p is the brainchild of association President Laura Mrachek. She and her husband, Mike, who are cherry, apple, and wine grape growers, were concerned by the multiplicity of food safety certification programs that growers need to comply with.

Mrachek saw the need for a single, comprehensive, grower-friendly program that could satisfy the requirements of all the major food safety certifiers and would apply specifically to tree fruit production.

Bruce Grim, executive director of the Hort Association, said the association recognized an urgent need for such a program and hopes to have the Gras2p workbook of recommended practices available this summer for a pilot program in which about 50 Hort Association members will take part. The association received a $49,500 specialty crop grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture to develop the workbook, which will be available in print and online. The program will be fully launched at the Hort Association’s annual meeting in December, said consultant Susan Pheasant, who is working on the project.

The plan is to help the grower through the process of preparing for the most stringent domestic or export certifications. Trained "coaches"—either warehouse personnel or private consultants working for the Hort Association—will walk the growers through the workbook, which addresses food safety, worker safety, product traceability, and sustainable practices relating to crop protection, soil management, and water management. Gras2p specialists will assess when growers are ready to be audited and issue audit-readiness certificates.

By following the Gras2p guidelines, growers should be prepared for any audit they’re likely to need, Grim said. One of the objectives of Gras2p is to have a standard food safety certification procedure for Washington growers to follow, no matter which shipper they take their fruit to, rather than individual shippers having different programs.

"What we’re trying to do is get in place a system that will work in relationship with the audit programs that are already out there and being used," Grim said. "It’s not the Washington State Horticultural Association saying you have to do this. We’re responding to what warehouses and marketers are telling us is going to be required. In order to sell fruit to XYZ retailer, they’re going to require audits in the warehouse, and now they’re filtering back to the field. We’re trying to put a program in place to allow growers to pass the audit. We’re not setting the standard."

It’s unlikely that growers will need to adopt many new practices, other than become fastidious about record keeping, Grim said. "The record keeping will be the key component to get used to, and doing it on a regular basis contemporaneously with the activity you’re doing—not going back six months later."

Working groups

Gras2p has three working groups consisting of industry people who are looking at the economic, environmental, and educational aspects. The economic group is exploring the cost of the program and how it might be funded. Participating growers will pay fees to the association, and Grim hopes it will be self-sustaining. The other work groups are providing guidance on program content and how it will be delivered to growers.

Barbara Walkenhauer, chief financial officer with Larson Fruit Company in Selah, and a member of the education group, said it is important that growers recognize the need for such a food safety program.

"That’s where it all starts—out on the farms," she said. "You can’t say, ‘It’s just a warehouse problem.’ We have to make sure we get a safe product to our consumers and that they know it’s safe. As a consumer, don’t you want to know that your produce is safe?"

As Walkenhauer sees it, Gras2p will allow growers to control their own destiny in terms of food safety precautions instead of having someone outside the industry tell them what they should do. The industry does not want to face the same measures as growers of field crops, such as lettuce and spinach, because fruit is not regarded as a high-risk crop, she said. "We really don’t feel we’re at risk of some of those issues that they have."

Because of the low risk and lack of food safety problems relating to fresh apples, it might be difficult for growers to accept that they need to do more, Walkenhauer acknowledged. But, she thinks it important that the industry be proactive, rather than reactive, by putting its own food safety program in place.

"I think it’s a tough sell to growers because they say, ‘How do I get paid back for this investment I’m making?" she said.

The payback, she explained, is a much lower likelihood of being involved in a devastating food safety incident, such as the peanut and pistachio industries recently went through.