The GroupGAP Audit Program, a new avenue of food safety certification offered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), will begin on April 4, 2016.
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Developed by the USDA and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, GroupGAP provides an affordable alternative to small- and mid-sized farmers who find the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Audit Program inaccessible. “The GAP certification process can be time-consuming and costly for individual 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,” says Maribel Reyna, AMS’ public affairs specialist, by email.
The program was developed as a direct response to the concerns of a group of small growers. In 2010, representatives of the group approached the USDA, requesting the development of a food safety certification program that would give growers of their size access to larger markets. “It was important for AMS to help create opportunities for small- and mid-sized farmers,” says Reyna. “GroupGAP will provide those opportunities for growers, and for the industry to supply and buy GAP-certified produce that follows the recommended [FDA] food safety practices.”
John Fisk, director of the Wallace Center, says by email, “The importance [of developing a program like GroupGAP] was particularly clear with respect to growing interest and demand for local and regionally sourced foods, much of which was coming from small- and mid-size farms.”
In the six years between the conception of GroupGAP and its implementation, a pilot program was administered. “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 group GAP certification,” says Reyna.
The pilot participants were located in eight states: California, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a Salinas, Calif.-based non-profit farm education and business incubator program, has been a pilot participant since 2014.
ALBA offers a five-year business incubator program in which students who have completed a 10-month long organic crop production course can rent land from ALBA in order to launch a small business. For GroupGAP, farmers in the first and second years of the incubator program, who manage less than two acres of land, are audited as one group.
Prior to ALBA’s participation in GroupGAP, these farmers were internally audited, but not certified. “We were at this issue where third-party food safety certification is very cost-prohibitive for a beginning farmer who is working a quarter to an acre, or even under two acres,” says Kaley Grimland, ALBA’s business enterprise development specialist. “[GroupGAP] allowed us to cost effectively get our farmers in the first years food safety certified, and therefore be able to sell to all of our clients.”
Although small- and mid-sized farmers were the target beneficiaries of GroupGAP, the program is open to farmers, food hubs, grower cooperatives, etc. of all sizes. “While we focused our efforts during the pilot phase of the program on smaller producers, the GroupGAP concept is applicable to all growers,” Reyna says.
Whether small-, mid-sized, or larger, “Any grower certified under GroupGAP must agree to follow all of the procedures dictated by the Group’s Quality Management System, maintained by the group’s ‘central entity,’” says Fisk. “A central entity might be a food hub, co-op, or other responsible organization.”
The GroupGAP application fee has not yet been finalized; however, the audits will cost $92 per hour, in compliance with the Specialty Crops Inspection Division’s audit rate as published in the Federal Register. “The audit charges will include the time it takes to review and approve an application, and conduct the on-farm verification audits as well as the Quality Management System audit of the group,” says Reyna. “The overall cost will depend on the number of farms involved and the how long it takes to perform the system review and audits.”