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Good News for Specialty Crop Growers: USDA’s Harmonized GAP Plus+ Now Fulfills Technical Requirement

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

By Nicole Cook

Image is of a sack of tomatoes. Image by Edwin Remsberg.

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This summer brought some good news for specialty crop growers in terms of streamlining produce safety regulatory requirements for farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that USDA’s Harmonized Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Plus+ Audit Program for specialty crops is now accepted as technically equivalent by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). The agency also announced that USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed to seek alignment of GAP with the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule. This is good news for growers because it means that growers who complete a USDA GAP Plus Audit also meet other U.S. and international regulatory and market requirements. That helps cut down on paperwork, saves time and money, and helps to grow markets for specialty crops.

The USDA Harmonized GAP Audit Program is an audit developed as part of the Produce GAP Harmonization Initiative (“the Initiative”), an industry-driven effort to develop food safety GAP standards and audit checklists for pre- and post-harvest operations. The audits assure buyers that producers have met required food safety standards and marketing practices. They verify adherence to the recommendations made in the FDA’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables and industry-recognized food safety practices.

The Initiative is a collaborative effort on the part of growers, shippers, produce buyers, audit organizations and government agencies. The USDA Harmonized GAP Audit, in keeping with the Initiative’s goals, is applicable to all fresh produce commodities, all sizes of on-farm operations and all regions in the U.S. More information about the Initiative can be found here.

GFSI certification is a standard often required by international markets as well as large domestic food distributors. USDA undertook the GFSI technical equivalence process at the request of the specialty crops industry to align the USDA GAP Program with industry-recognized food safety audit requirements. and to provide the specialty crops sector with a single government-based certification program that meets multiple market access requirements.

As we’ve discussed in several previous posts on this blog, the FSMA Produce Safety Rule establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. Large farming operations were required to comply with the rule in January 2018. The FDA, however, announced that inspections to assess compliance with the Produce Safety Rule for produce other than sprouts would not begin until Spring 2019, giving growers additional time to ensure they are able to meet compliance requirements. Small and very small farms have additional time to comply.

Although the requirements of USDA Harmonized GAP and the FSMA Produce Safety Rule are not identical, the relevant technical components in the FDA Produce Safety Rule, such as biological soil amendments, sprouts, domesticated and wild animals, worker training, health and hygiene, and equipment, tools and buildings, are covered in the USDA Harmonized GAP Audit Program. This means that specialty crop farmers who take advantage of a USDA Harmonized GAP audit will have a much greater likelihood of passing a FSMA inspection as well. The alignment will help farmers by enabling them to assess their food safety practices as they prepare to comply with the Produce Safety Rule. The USDA audits are not, however, a substitute for FDA or state regulatory inspections.

These alignments are part of an ongoing effort on the part of USDA to streamline produce safety requirements for farmers. They build on a formal agreement signed earlier this year outlining plans to increase interagency coordination regarding produce safety, inspections of dual-jurisdiction facilities and biotechnology activities. For more information about USDA’s Auditing and Accreditation services, visit the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services webpage. And, for information about upcoming FSMA Produce Safety Rule Grower Trainings in Maryland, contact Deanna Baldwin at the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5769.

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