FISHERTOWN - "A lot of the chain stores would not buy my fruit unless I had Good Agriculture Practices," Ridgetop Orchard owner Daniel Boyer said.
The Bedford County orchard has been GAP-certified for three years. The Penn State Cooperative Extension program is a combination of common sense and documentation of things like the hygiene of the 40 to 100 employees and the harvesting of apples, peaches and cherries, Boyer said.
The GAP program came about after bouts of food contamination and outbreaks and some food recalls, Penn State University associate professor of food science Luke LaBorde said. GAP is a voluntary program that works with grocery stores and restaurants and uses workshops to express important regulations for GAP certification.
A closer look
The Good Agricultural Practices program provides on-farm food safety information from Penn State University and the Cooperative Extension offices.
GAP focuses on four main areas:
Health and hygiene (hand-washing practices, not handling products while sick)
Water (irrigation, frost control, testing water sources)
Soil (not using animal manure around a product within 120 days of harvesting)
Food contact services (keeping product containers clean and uncontaminated)
Workshops are available through the Cooperative Extension offices throughout the year. GAP consists of documentation and a certification process that gives comfort to major buyers such as restaurants and stores. For more information, visit http://foodsafety.psu.edu/gaps/
Most of the things are indeed common sense, LaBorde said, whether it's washing hands after eating or using the bathroom or keeping manure away from product soil close to harvest time.
"The documentation part is the different part," LaBorde said. "People aren't used to writing down bathroom maintenance laws, things like that. They get kind of flustered."
Penn State offers application templates and forms for the process on its Food Science Department website.
"I wouldn't say it's a big change for us; it's just more recordkeeping," Boyer said. "Before, we did these things, but we didn't keep records. Now we keep records on everything we do."
Tom Ford with the Blair County Cooperative Extension has conducted GAP workshops in Blair and Somerset counties as well as in West Virginia.
Ford said the program is "great from a food safety standpoint for the consumer," but it is not being favored by a lot of farmers due to things like expensive and frequent inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and increased paperwork such as a 27-page audit form. Until it's a requirement, a lot of farmers likely will not get certified, Ford said.
"If it becomes the law, the producers won't have any choice," Ford said. "There is concern out there within the industry that it might drive smaller farmers out of business."
Still, it's becoming increasingly important as produce is more heavily scrutinized.
"Large grocery chains and most mass merchandisers that buy produce want farms that have passed the GAP audit," Ford said.
Larger farms, particularly in the orchard industry, tend to be in favor of the GAP program, its principles and a certification, Ford said, while other agriculture areas are less inclined to do so.
"It's more difficult for vegetable producers because of the diversity of the product," he said.
Boyer said the program is terrific for harvest time for his orchards.
"All our apples are harvested under the GAP program," he said. "Some of the things we do pre-harvest, but it's mostly at harvest time when we're checked. We try to have a good environment to pick fruit."
The program is still evolving, LaBorde said, but it's likely this will be a mandatory requirement in the commonwealth in the near future and is something producers should start to become more aware of.
"Any place that's going to deliver products to people should at least be aware of it," he said. "We're just starting. We're kind of figuring out where we should go by watching where the industry is going, especially with the buyers."