When provisions of the new food safety law (the ­American Food Safety Modernization Act) are implemented, Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification ­programs should wither away, no longer needed.

But that’s not likely to happen soon, according to Phil Tocco, a Michigan State University Extension educator who advises fruit growers and food handlers about preharvest and postharvest food safety.

“Remember that GAPs came about because retailers felt there was a lack of adequate regulation in food safety, especially in the produce industry,” Tocco said.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was the enforcer of food safety rules, developed its own USDA GAP audit program to assure the safety of the food it buys for school lunch and other programs it administers. USDA GAP is not a federal regulation and is not mandatory, but producers who want to sell food to the government must meet its GAP standards. USDA GAP certification has been adopted by others in the food industry.

The new law transfers food safety enforcement out of USDA and gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration broad powers to promulgate and enforce food safety rules, Tocco said. If FDA exercises those powers and develops food safety regulations as strong as or stronger than GAP standards, GAP certification programs will no longer be needed, he said. If, however, FDA has the authority and does nothing or does it poorly, retailers will probably continue doing what they are doing—which is to require GAP ­certification by outside auditors.

“My guess is that with conservative, antigovernment sentiment running through the legislative branch of government, and with very little money to promulgate and enforce new rules, very little will change in the next year or two,” Tocco said.

Vested interest

The new food safety regulations were broadly backed by the produce industry, both producers and retailers, who had a vested interest in mitigating their liability and transferring some food safety responsibility to the federal government. Under the new law, FDA would have the authority to issue recalls immediately, for example, instead of requesting companies to post voluntary recalls.

In passing the law, however, Congress adopted the Tester-Hagen amendment, which exempts small food producers from the new food safety act.

The amendment exempts “qualified facilities” with sales less than $500,000 a year and selling most of their products directly to consumers in the same state and within a 400-mile radius. It also exempts operations that the FDA classifies as very small businesses, like those who sell their produce at farmers’ markets or roadside stands.

A coalition of 17 farm organizations, including the Produce Marketing Association, opposed this amendment, saying the provisions create an arbitrary standard for food safety that significantly weakens food safety policy. “We support FDA food safety guidelines developed using scientific, risk-based standards designed to minimize risks to public health,” the coalition said in a letter to Nancy Pelosi, who was Speaker of the House during the lame duck session of the 112th Congress.

Certainly the amendment assures that buyers who use GAP certification will have to continue to do so if they buy produce from exempt producers and that market access for smaller producers will be restricted.

Tocco also noted that, for GAP certification programs to go away, FDA must implement rules that are at least as strong or stronger as the GAP standards. Since FDA rules will be restricted to dealing with food safety, the GlobalGAP certification used by Walmart may continue—because these also contain requirements for worker protection and environmental stewardship, which are not food safety-related issues.

Even strong FDA rules would not necessarily affect those who export products to the European Union, so those growers might need to continue to meet EurepGAP certification. It is not clear whether shifting the food safety enforcement burden to the government would alter costs, but it is clear that the newly empowered Tea Party opposes government spending and tax-based solutions. The new law would cost an estimated $1.4 billion over five years, which includes the cost of 2,000 more food inspectors.

Tocco spoke at the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show in ­Traverse City in January. For growers wanting to keep updated on GAP certification, Tocco hosts weekly free educational Web seminars called the Agrifood Safety Minute at http://gaps.msue.msu.edu/afsm.htm.