AgCenter helps produce growers develop food safety plans

Olivia McClure  |  5/27/2016 7:22:13 PM

(05/27/16) FRANKLINTON, La. – Produce growers from the Florida Parishes area got help from experts writing on-farm food safety plans, one of the most important steps toward preventing contamination, at a workshop held May 26 and 27.

The event included presentations from LSU AgCenter, Southern University Ag Center and Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry experts on how to reduce food safety risks. Attendees also heard about how they can prepare for the audits required for certification in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling Practices (GHPs) programs.

GAPs and GHPs are voluntary practices growers can implement to prevent contamination, said LSU AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari. Though certification is not mandatory, many retailers only buy produce from certified growers, he said.

Growers are audited for the USDA GAPs and GHPs programs by a USDA-licensed auditor and must receive a score of at least 80 percent to become certified. Even if growers don’t want to become certified, having a safety plan is still important, Adhikari said.

At the May 27 session, growers worked in groups to write their own plans that detail practices designed to reduce contamination risks during growing, harvest, packing and transportation. Plans should cover chemical, physical and microbial hazards, Adhikari said.

During the event, attendees started by drawing maps of their farms and identifying current risks and practices.

“It doesn’t have to be a novel,” Adhikari said. “Whatever you are doing on your farm, just put it in your document. Simple is OK.”

Many growers already take appropriate steps to ensure food safety, but they need to keep documentation, Adhikari said. Written records are important not only for audits but for keeping growers’ operations viable.

“It’s helpful for you to know something you’ve done before that might be the cause of problems,” Adhikari said.

Growers have to keep their plans updated, he said. For example, switching from well water to surface water or growing different crops presents unique safety hazards that must be addressed with specific procedures. Root crops like radishes can touch the soil during harvest, but other crops, like tomatoes, cannot be sold for raw consumption if they contact the soil, Adhikari said.

One person should be designated to write and implement the plan and keep the necessary records, such as documenting when equipment is cleaned or what action was taken if there were signs of animal intrusion in a field. Food safety plans should also include policies, such as requiring workers to wear gloves when packing produce.

“If you just keep all the paperwork — everything you have implemented — you will be able to get up to 65 percent of the score on the audit,” Adhikari said. “That’s how important the paperwork is.”

After working on their safety plans, attendees visited Seth Descant’s blueberry farm near Franklinton, which recently received GAPs certification.

“It’s a work in progress,” Descant said. “You have to work at it.”

Although there are fees for the audits and he had to make some changes on the farm, certification has been worth it, Descant said.

“It opens you up to bigger buyers,” he said. “All the people we’re talking to, you have to have GAPs certification to sell to them.”

Business has picked up for Descant, too.

“They’re buying it before it’s picked off the bush,” he said.

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LSU AgCenter county agent Whitney Wallace, left, and vegetable specialist Kiki Fontenot, center, help growers as they work on food safety plans during an event held May 27 in Franklinton. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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LSU AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari, right, talks to attendees of a May 27 event in Franklinton about the important of having an on-farm food safety plan. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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During a food safety workshop on May 27, Seth Descant, center in turquoise shirt, tells visitors about safety practices in place on the packing line of his blueberry farm near Franklinton, which recently received Good Agricultural Practices certification. Descant has signs posted on the wall, at left, that list hygiene requirements for workers. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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