Tiers of on-farm food safety

July 12, 2019

by Teresa Wiemerslage, field specialist

Farmers are navigating new rules related to the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fresh produce. Some terms are new, and some practices are now required by law. This new food safety landscape has farmers wondering what systems are needed on their farms.

I created this graphic to help farmers understand the levels of food safety for their farms.

food safety levels graphic.

GAPs are the foundation

The foundation of all farm food safety efforts are Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPS. GAPs are voluntary guidelines for produce farmers to reduce the risk of microbial contamination related to food-borne illnesses on their farms. GAPs include:

  • worker training
  • adequate toilet and handwashing facilities
  • animal control
  • water quality
  • soil amendment use, and
  • cleaning and sanitation

Farms of all sizes should be using GAPs to manage food safety risks.

FSMA Produce Safety Rule is next

The FSMA Produce Safety Rule (PSR) is the next tier. The PSR outlines which GAPs farmers must follow and which ones they should follow.

Farms fall into three groups in relation to the rule:

  • Some farms are fully covered by the rule for crops that are eaten raw.
  • Other farms are exempt from the rule, or
  • They may be qualified exempt, depending on what crops are grown, how much they sell and where crops are sold.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will start inspecting covered farms this summer. Their staff will call farms to set up an appointment ahead of time. Inspections will happen every three to four years, at no cost to the farm.

To fully understand the PSR, farmers should attend a day-long Grower Training offered by ISU Extension and Outreach at locations across Iowa in the winter. Check for dates on the ISU Safe Produce website.

Next level: GAP

The next level of food safety is GAP certification, shown at the top of the graphic. GAP certification is an optional, annual certification some wholesale buyers request of suppliers. The USDA or certain third-party companies conduct GAP audits.

Farms may request a GAP/GHP (good handling practices) audit, harmonized audit or harmonized plus audit. Inspectors conduct the audits by crop and generally bill by the hour. USDA GAP audits in Iowa cost $800-1,400 per year.

The requirement for a GAP audit is buyer-driven. Even though some crops might be exempt from the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, a buyer might still require GAP certification. Similarly, a farm may be exempt from FSMA PSR because of their size. But their main produce buyer might still require a GAP audit to sell to them.

Resources for farmers

The ISU Extension and Outreach Produce Safety Team can help farmers with all of their food safety goals. We have team members who can conduct general GAP training, help farmers create farm food safety plans and visit farms to walk through a mock GAP audit. We also provide lots of resources on our website.

Contact the team by email.