Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, along with leaders from food and agriculture organizations, introduced a free online tool to help U.S. producers of all sizes achieve Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) harmonized standards and certification, helping to further expand economic opportunities for American agriculture. USDA's GAP audit verification program focuses on best agricultural practices to verify that farms are producing, and packers are handling and storing, fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize food safety hazards. The free online tool—developed by FamilyFarmed.org  with funding from USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA)—helps farmers design a customized manual to meet GAP harmonized standards and certification requirements, including USDA GAP standards, and mitigate business risks by answering just a few questions.
"USDA believes that a strong farm safety net—including effective, market-based risk solutions for producers of all variety and size—is crucial to sustain the vitality of American agriculture," said Merrigan. "Effectively managing risk is important to all producers, and having an acceptable food safety program is in the best interest of consumers, buyers, and the farmers themselves. USDA is proud to have worked with private, public and non-profit partners to introduce this free tool to farmers seeking to gain certification as a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) producer."
The online tool, part of FamilyFarmed.org's On-Farm Food Safety Project, is the first of its kind and was developed by a broad coalition of farm and produce industry partners. It is available at http://www.onfarmfoodsafety.org/ .
USDA's GAP audit verification program, administered by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), focuses on best agricultural practices to verify that farms are producing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. USDA's voluntary audit based program verifies adherence to the recommendations made in the Food and Drug Administration's Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.
To generate a food safety plan using the tool, the user must answer a series of questions on topics including worker health and hygiene, agricultural water, previous land use, soil amendments and manure, animals and pest control, packinghouse activities, product transportation, agricultural chemicals, and field harvesting. In addition to helping farmers create a food safety plan, the tool offers farmers a full-set of record keeping templates to document their food safety efforts as well as useful food safety resources.
Once users have completed their farm's food safety plan and compiled necessary documentation, they have the capacity to apply for GAP food safety certification, a process asked for by many larger buyers. Large buyers including Compass Group, SYSCO, and Chipotle Mexican Grill supported the project financially and with technical assistance. Groups that participated in the development and review of the tool include: Chipotle Mexican Grill, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Compass Group, Earthbound Farm, Farm Aid, FDA, NSF Agriculture, Produce Marketing Association, SYSCO, The Organic Center, Western Growers, Wallace Center at Winrock International, Wild Farm Alliance, University of California at Davis, United Fresh Produce Association, and USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The Obama Administration, with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack's leadership, has worked tirelessly to strengthen rural America, implement the Farm Bill, maintain a strong farm safety net, and create opportunities for America's farmers and ranchers. U.S. agriculture is currently experiencing one of its best years in decades thanks to the productivity, resiliency, and resourcefulness of our producers. Today, net farm income is at record levels while debt has been cut in half since the 1980s. Overall, American agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs in the United States and provides American consumers with 86 percent of the food we consume, while maintaining affordability and choice. The Obama Administration has aggressively worked to expand export opportunities and reduce barriers to trade, helping to push agricultural exports to record levels in 2011 and beyond. Strong agricultural exports are a positive contribution to the U.S. trade balance, support more than 1 million American jobs and boost economic growth.