The reputation of your fruit business and its long-term viability can be influenced by many factors. Customers who experience high-quality, delicious and safe-to-eat fruit purchased at a fair price will likely be return customers. However, if someone becomes sick or dies from food associated with your operation or in an operation that grows the same commodities as you, the outcome can be disastrous.
If you are a large-scale, wholesale fruit grower, you are likely implementing Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) already. Your customers probably require an annual third-party food safety audit and evidence of product traceback capability. A comprehensive crisis management plan should be in place to deal with a product recall and periodic mock recalls should be performed.
Time To Get Busy
Maybe all the buzz about food safety these days has not yet translated into specific action by you on your farm and you are worried about what to do or how to get started. You already do all that you know to do to ensure that your fruit is safe to eat, but you admit that there may be some “gaps in your GAPs,” so to speak. You realize that it is time to get busy.
Being willing to admit that you lack certain knowledge and taking steps to gain it is wise. Fortunately, training opportunities for producers to learn about good agricultural practices and food safety are available in many states. Extension professionals from the local land-grant universities, federal and state government experts, produce industry leaders, and others provide classroom instruction with real-world examples, to drive home important concepts. These may be one or two-day intensive programs at specific locations.
If you are unable to attend such trainings because of cost, where they are offered, or the time that they are available, what can you do to train yourself? Fortunately, there is considerable information available online through the National GAPs Program Network for Education and Training (www.gaps.cornell.edu) at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science. Some of this information is available free and some can be purchased and mailed directly to you. One such for-purchase publication is entitled: “Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower’s Guide to Good Agricultural Practices for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.”
Maybe you would be interested in taking an online course on the topic. “GAPS01: Implementing GAPs: A Key to Produce Safety” (www.ecornell.com/gaps) is an excelled online produce safety course. This three-week course is offered through the National GAPs Program and it is quite affordable ($50 course fee) since it is currently subsidized by USDA grant funding. You can take it in the convenience of your own home, participating at any time of the day, and you can spend as little or as much time as you have each day. Of course, you would need a computer and Internet access, but it was designed to work even in areas where you only have a dial-up connection. The price for this course will likely increase in September 2010 when the grant funding expires, so enroll before then to take advantage of this price.
A Learning Experience
Since my training is in horticulture and not food safety/GAPs, and because I wanted to expand my knowledge about these topics both for my Extension program and as part of the HORT 455/655 “Just Fruits” class I teach each fall, I decided to take this online GAPs class in March. I did the course in the evenings from my home. Topics included: worker training, hygiene, and health; agricultural water use; postharvest water use; soil amendments; cleaning and sanitation; traceability and recall; crisis management; implementing a food safety plan, etc. Some of the topics actually led to some interesting dinnertime discussions with my wife and children!
Class size is limited and you are encouraged to interact with other class participants through a discussion board. An online instructor will interact with you by eMail and has posted “office-hours” to participate in discussions. There are pre- and post-course tests, quite a bit of material to read, four assignments for evaluation, and two self-tests. I would estimate that I spent 20 hours to complete (and pass!) the course.
Besides the excellent content and attractive presentation of the materials, two parts of the class were particularly rewarding for me. First, I really enjoyed reading the discussion board comments of other class participants (mostly fruit growers from all around the U.S.) as they shared experiences, horror stories, changes implemented in their operations, and particular insights based on the course content covered, etc. Second, I was fascinated to read the case studies of real foodborne illness outbreaks and how scientists discovered the cause and what was learned in the process.
If you haven’t developed a produce safety plan for your operation, you should seriously consider developing one. A great tool to use in this exercise is the publication: “Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower Self-Assessment of Food Safety Risks.” This workbook is available at the Cornell GAPs website noted already.
May you have a productive and profitable harvest season as you supply safe-to-eat, delicious fruits to eager and hungry consumers!