GUEST BLOG POST By Elanor Starmer 

produceIF you are a farmer interested in selling produce wholesale or direct to a retailer, restaurant or institution, you probably have food safety on the brain. A growing number of buyers require farms to demonstrate compliance with a food safety standard, often through an audit and certification program. That takes work for any farmer, but small and midsized farmers can face unique challenges in accessing and paying for food safety training, audits and certification. Luckily, USDA has a tool designed specifically for you.

You’ve likely heard of USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, program. Now we have an updated version. Our new GroupGAP program allows small and midsized farmers to band together and become GAP-certified as a group. A group certification can help cut individual producer costs while assuring buyers that participating farmers are following rigorous, trusted GAP protocols.

The result is stronger food safety practices on the farm, more market access for farmers and more options for buyers — a true win-win. USDA GroupGAP provides food safety assurance from farm to table.

For the past three years, USDA has worked closely with partners at the Wallace Center and with 12 grower groups on a pilot effort to design a GroupGAP program that lives up to our high standards. On April 4 we rolled out this new program for all growers, regardless of size or market. GroupGAP empowers members of the group to determine their own composition and decide which commodities are covered by the certification. Groups can certify with any GAP standard audit.

This effort is particularly important for buyers interested in getting into the growing market for local food, which hit an estimated $12 billion in 2014 and is expected to reach $20 billion in the next three years. Often, local farm products come from small and midsized operations.  Some are old hands at the GAP audit experience, but for many, food safety certification is new territory. At USDA, we see it as our duty and mission to ensure that these farms have the tools to succeed.

Streamlines audit process
Our new national GroupGAP effort streamlines the GAP audit process for growers, helps them provide assurance that they’re upholding strong food safety practices on the farm, and makes it possible for buyers to meet consumer demand for fresh, local products. We are now working closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to align the GAP and GroupGAP programs with the requirements of FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act so that as FSMA takes effect, growers participating in GAP know they are also meeting FSMA requirements.

USDA stands ready to serve producers of all sizes as they implement and document food safety practices on their farms. The Agricultural Marketing Service can play such a key role through the development of GroupGAP. For more information, visit ams.usda.gov or email AMS at groupgap@ams.gov.

Elanor Starmer is the Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

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