GAPs. If you’ve been to any of our meetings over the past year, you’ve likely heard the term. But what exactly is it and how does it relate to building strong regional food systems?

These questions were the focus of our April meeting, where we examined the relationship between food safety and farm-to-institution. Read on for highlights from the discussion.

Not all institutional and retail buyers require third-party certification from their sellers, but many do and that number is only increasing. Nationally, the concern over food safety has risen as food-borne illness outbreaks continue to make headlines. Large-scale, industrialized systems of food production are often said to be the culprit of food-borne illness outbreaks. But food safety is still pertinent to the small- and mid-scale, diversified producers: If these operations—which are key to the economic viability of community-based food systems—are to benefit from access to the larger, wholesale markets of institutions, then they will need to consider food safety certification.

There are numerous types of third-party food safety audits, and different purchasers require different types of certifications. Most, however, accept GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification. This is a USDA audit program that helps to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest way possible as a means of reducing the risk of food safety hazards. Producers interested in becoming certified often begin by attending a food safety training, where they begin developing a food safety plan. After implementing the food safety plan, the farm is inspected and audited to award certification. Audits must occur every year to retain certification.

The certification process sounds straight-forward enough, but there are plenty of barriers preventing many of the smaller-scale producers in our area from becoming certified. The first (surprise) is the cost of the certification itself and the cost (financial and time) of implementing any necessary pieces of the food safety plan that don’t already exist for an operation. The total cost of certification (time, added infrastructure, added labor for record-keeping, and the audit) varies but is often deemed as too much for producers in our region.

The fact that the certification applies to only one product (i.e. a farm wanting to certify different products must individually certify each), is an added challenge for our region’s many diversified farms. Add to this producers’ (understandable) confusion around and difficulty accessing educational resources on GAPs, and it’s no wonder that GAP certification is seen as one of the biggest barriers of farm-to-institution.

Unfortunately, GAP certification isn’t going away. The good news is, many of the GAP-certified producers we’ve heard from, like Lone Maple Farm and Finger Lakes Fresh, say the certification process isn’t so bad and has improved overall business success. At our meeting Challenge Industries/Finger Lakes Fresh representative Marty Gold said that producers are empowered to design food safety plans that fit the needs of their farm, making certification a very individualized process. She also noted that many food safety plan templates are available online, as well as the audit checklist, which producers can use to “work backwards” when writing their plans.  Mike Harris of Lone Maple Farm has also assured fellow producers that most farms are already practicing the safe handling methods standardized by GAPs—it’s just a matter of putting it to paper.

If you’re not a producer (or a purchaser), you may be wondering why GAPs matters to you. As we continue to consider how to best strengthen our regional food system, we can’t lose sight of the importance of making farm to institution—which will increase the accessibility of healthy, local food in the channels through which most people obtain food (hospitals, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, etc.)—a reality. Imperative to this reality is reducing the barriers surrounding food safety certification so that more regional producers can access institutional markets. Advocating for funding to support food safety trainings and certifications, especially for smaller-scale farms, is one way to help reduce the barriers. By better understanding food safety and all that it entails, we can all serve as better advocates for our regional food system.

Some interesting comments and questions from the meeting:

  • Farm to Institution (and GAP certification), especially in the context of working with non-retail entities, may provide a greater opportunity for building value chains and safer markets for producers of appropriate scale.
  • How do other states with similar agricultural identities handle farm-to-institution, food safety, and GAPs?
  • Is there a need for a “pre-GAP readiness” training for producers? What about a “decision tree” that would help producers determine whether or not GAP certification is worthwhile/affordable? What are beginner farmer training programs doing to provide new farmers with instruction and technical assistance in food safety certifications and wholesale marketing?

For more information on GAPs and GAP certification, visit the following links:

Cornell University’s GAPs Network for Education and Training:

USDA General Information on Food Safety

USDA Good Agricultural Practices Good Handling Practices Audit Verification Checklist: