TAKE 5: Local farms stepping up safety standards

Jun. 14, 2014 @ 04:58 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Kim Tungate, an agriculture agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County, who is assisting local farms in focusing on food safety and GAP certification as a means to expand market opportunities.

Can you explain what GAP is and why it was developed?

Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) provide standards for farmers, food distributors and processors to help ensure that purchased fresh and/or processed foods are safe for consumers. The standards are detailed methods for proper handling, storage and/or processing of fresh produce and for proper management of environmental conditions to minimize food contamination.

The GAP certification program has been around since 2002. It has been a voluntary program, and most vendors did not require certification. However, in recent years, there have been a few incidents of people becoming ill or even dying from contaminated produce. These incidents raised a red flag to many vendors who decided to require GAP certification.

It is necessary to add that our farms uphold high food safety standards and it is not reason to cause alarm. The problem with food contamination really stems more from the large scale of many operations and the long distances that they travel. Many people handle the produce; it is moved around a great deal, and so the chances of contamination are increased. Our farmers in this region sell locally and are small scale … buy local so you know where your food comes from.

Why is GAPS important?

Certification provides “peace of mind” to buyers of fresh produce that the food they are purchasing comes from farms or produce handlers that adhere to food safety regulations. On a practical level, GAP certification helps cover liability issues for restaurants, institutions and grocery stores.

A number of local farmers have become GAPS certified. What's the process involved in certification, and what advantages does it provide those who do get certified?

We're excited to announce that Gary Thomas Farms, Harrington and Sons, and McNeill Farms are now GAP certified. We have an additional farm being audited soon. These farms have already benefited, with new vendors purchasing their produce; some of the farms will be expanding operations to accommodate the new market opportunities.

The road to GAP certification started with trainings given by N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents in Lee, Moore and Richmond counties. As part of this process, the extension agents assisted the farmer in putting together a food safety plan that covered proper food handling and environmental conditions on the farm. Once the plan was completed, the farm was visited by extension agents to evaluate the farm operations.

After making minor adjustments to adhere to the food safety plan standards, an audit was scheduled. The audit involved having a USDA auditor come to the farm, review the food safety plan and walk around the farm operation to observe whether the produce handling and environmental conditions met the food safety standards. At the end of the audit, the total points were tallied, and if more than 80 points were attained, the farm became certified.

There's also a cost, and that depends on how long the audit takes. The USDA auditor charges by the hour. Typical costs for audits range between $800 and $1,500, and this does not take into account the cost associated with preparing for the audit and ensuring the food safety plan is being followed after certification.

The whole notion of “farm to table” is gaining popularity. Why is having access to locally grown foods important — both from an economic standpoint and a health and nutrition standpoint?

Locally grown foods provide income for our farmers, which helps keep farm land in production. Agriculture is a driving force for rural communities, and there is a need to increase economic development in order to maintain our working farms.

That is one angle but, let's face it, locally grown foods have better flavor than food that has traveled miles across the country; you can't beat the flavor of a just-picked tomato or a juicy strawberry straight from the field. Furthermore, from a food safety perspective it is good to know where your food comes from, who grew it and how it was handled.

Vegetables and fruits start slowly breaking down nutrients once they are removed from their respective plants. With this reasoning, the nutrition of locally grown produce should be higher than one that has traveled miles across the country. So it stands to reason that the longer the time from picking to the time you consume the fresh produce, the lower the nutritional value.

What advice can you give local people about finding access to locally-grown foods?

It is easy to find locally grown foods in Lee County; we have a large number of farmers growing every type of fruit and vegetable that we can produce in this area. We have the Sanford farmers’ markets, roadside stands, on-farm stands and some grocery stores that have locally grown foods. This time of year, it is very easy to eat local. For a complete list of farm fresh stands, please check out the website www.ncfarmfresh.com.