Jan 14, 2016
USDA’s GroupGAP program set to launch this spring

GroupGap, a new certification option for USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audit program, is designed to make GAP certification more accessible to small and medium-size producers.

The program allows multiple growers to work together to obtain a single, group certification. GroupGAP certification offers growers a cost-effective means to show adherence to GAP requirements.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service’s Crops Inspection Division held a webinar in November to introduce the on-farm food safety verification program for farmers of all sizes.

The featured speakers were Ken Peterson, chief of the Audit Services Branch of USDA’s specialty crops inspection division, and Donna Burke- Fonda, assistant branch chief.

The GroupGap program, which was introduced to the produce industry in October, will be officially launched April 3, 2016.

“We are excited for the potential of this program to be a solution for growers to meet market demands for demonstrating compliance to GAP standards while delivering economies that, until now, have not been available through USDA,” Peterson said.

Peterson said GroupGAP is a new, audit- based program designed to allow grower groups, such as cooperatives, food hubs and grower associations to:

  • Receive USDA Gap certification
  • Demonstrate conformance to the new FDA requirements for on- farm food safety

Access new markets

USDA developed the program after a group of small-grower representatives approached USDA in 2010 to ask for the development of a food safety verification program to help small and medium-sized growers access larger and more lucrative markets.

“Increasing demand for locally sourced food offers unprecedented opportunities for farmers to expand their business – but only if they can show compliance with food safety standards, as well as the requirements of retail, institutional and other buyers,” Peterson said.

Larger suppliers use the USDA GAP & GHP Program to meet these buyer requirements, but the GAP certification process “can be time-consuming and costly for many small-to-medium sized farms, creating a barrier for farmers
who are trying to access larger wholesale markets such as schools, hospitals and grocery stores,” Peterson said. “Small growers needed a way to become USDA GAP certified.”

USDA, in collaboration with the Wallace Center at Winrock International, launched the GroupGAP pilot program in 2013, Peterson said. The Wallace Center
is a nonprofit organization that supports efforts to move local food into large-scale marketing channels, and has been an advocate of local and regional food systems across the United States.

The three-year GroupGAP pilot program included 22 projects that helped smaller growers and cooperatives meet retailers’ on- farm food safety requirements by working collaboratively to obtain GAP certification.

“The success of the pilot program resulted in our decision to offer the GroupGAP Certification Program as a new food safety verification service.”

Peterson said the program is an expansion of USDA’s GAP Audit Program, which provides third-party certification services to verify that operations are following industry- recognized good safety practices, as well as recommendations from FDA.

USDA is working closely with FDA to align the program with at least the minimum requirements of the recently released Produce Safety Rule under FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act), Peterson said.

“What is unique about GroupGAP is that it allows growers, food hubs and other marketing organizations to come together as a group and work under a common, on-farm food safety program with shared accountability and compliance to its own Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), industry best practices, state and federal regulations, and the USDA GroupGAP Program requirements, thus leveraging the resources of multiple producers rather than each grower needing to implement these requirements independently,” Peterson said.

Specifically, group members:

  • Share the cost of certification rather than each producer paying the full cost individually
  • Develop and implement their own shared quality management system, food safety program and training program, instead of each grower developing separate plans individually
  • Work under a group leader who serves as the group’s coordinator in making, implementing and ensuring compliance with the group’s own plans and procedures
  • Undergo audits as a group

“Taken together, the provisions of this new program benefit the entire specialty crops supply chain, from producer to buyer to consumer,” Peterson said.

Peterson said GroupGAP saves producers time by reducing individual documentation and maintenance requirements by allowing grower groups to develop and work under a single system instead of each grower developing a separate plan.

“By assigning a group leader, group members enjoy the benefit of having a single food safety leader who is responsible for coordinating the group’s activities and making sure each member is audit-ready,” Peterson said. “The program reduces audit costs to each member, since the total certification cost is divided among all growers in the group.”

Peterson said one of the groups in the pilot program reported that, “as a group
of 80 producers who collectively grow 130 acres of onions, group certification will save us over $30,000 just in certification costs, compared to if we had to each maintain our own individual certification.”

GroupGap also reduces the number of external audits the group must undergo, Peterson said.

“GroupGap provides you with the USDA certification you need to open doors to
new, larger, more stable and more lucrative markets,” he said. “Expanding the number of GAP-certified small farmers through GroupGAP will help retailers meet the increasing demand for locally sourced food.”

Grower requirements

All participating growers must agree to:

• Developaand operate under a shared quality management system (QMS)

• Share accountability for each other’s ability to maintain the program across the group

These group activities are coordinated by a group leader, who is responsible for implementing – and ensuring compliance with – the group’s QMS, processes and procedures.

GroupGAP is a year-round system. The group can work with outside experts from academia, Extension or other non-governmental organizations such as the Wallace Center to “improve their processes, provide additional training and address specific food safety issues,” Burke- Fonda said.

GroupGAP application instructions and program requirements will be available on the GroupGAP website in the near future. For information about the GroupGAP Certification Program, visit www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/groupgap, or email [email protected]

Gary Pullano, Associate Editor 

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