By: Anna Brunner
The Purpose of This Document: To provide an overview of Good
Agricultural Practices certification, the pros and cons of becoming
GAP certified, and the steps you should take before getting audited.
The guidelines for GAP are set out by the United States Department of Agriculture, but the audit to ensure compliance and grant certification is handled by a private company. GAP certification must be renewed on a yearly basis in order to remain valid, and each crop sold must undergo an individual certification audit. One GAP audit and certification costs between $300 and $600. Requirements for meeting GAP certification are rigorous and go beyond common-sense ways of limiting contamination of produce. Records detailing wild animals sighted on the property, concentration of produce cleaning chemicals, and temperature of refrigerators holding food before transport to market are all examples of requirements to meet GAP certification standards. This rigorous and costly process can help prevent contamination of produce, help identify the source of food born illness, should it occur, and become a marketing point for your farm.
Good Agricultural Practices or GAP
Many small farms sell produce directly to vendors or consumers without ever considering a GAP audit, using common-sense hygiene and produce processing practices instead. GAP, as defined by the USDA, puts the common-sense cleanliness practices into more methodical and thorough terms to ensure food safety standards are being followed. GAP puts practices into place that allow each harvest to be traceable in case of food borne illness and helps to discourage the likelihood of a food borne illness originating on your farm. GAP certification is also required by certain vendors, so becoming certified could increase your potential markets and can provide a marketing/selling advantage over non-certified farms. GAP certification can be costly, however, so there are certain things to keep in mind before deciding to have your farm undergo a GAP audit [Source 1].
Why Should My Farm get GAP Certified?
As mentioned above, GAP certification comes with many concrete benefits, perhaps the most obvious of which is the expanded client base. Many larger retailers, or brokers who distribute to retailers, will require GAP certification or a similar kind of food safety certification. Even for businesses that do not require GAP certification, the knowledge that your farm is GAP certified may cause them to choose you over other farms for produce purchases. Another benefit of GAP certification comes from the knowledge that your farm is following the highest safety standards set out for farmers, which can help minimize outbreaks of food borne illness and their economically damaging impact.
To many people familiar with having a personal garden or kitchen, or having run a farm for awhile, common-sense food safety practices may seem obvious and uncomplicated. The challenge is that while these common-sense practices may work well for your family or local community, they may not work for a larger group of people. The more customers you reach, the better, but also the more varied they become, and with this variation come people with weaker and stronger immune systems. Additionally, the larger your production chain, the more people are handling the food before it reaches the dinner table, and therefore there are more places where contamination can occur. Because some amount of contamination will occur, it is important to minimize contamination where you have control over it—on your farm. GAP is set in place to minimize contamination at the farm level in order to protect people in the population at large who have different immune systems than the people you might personally interact with most. Therefore GAP sometimes requires more than just the obvious common-sense solution.
How is Being GAP Certified Different?
The first step to take before getting GAP audited, and then certified, is to bring your farm up to certification standards. The main reason to become certified if you are already following GAP guidelines would be if a retailer required it, although there can be marketing advantages to being GAP certified as well. The safety benefits from GAP start the moment you implement the policies needed to become certified and therefore it is not necessary to become officially certified in order to benefit from GAP. The main difference between just following the GAP requirements, such as hand washing between activities, and being certified in GAP is quite a lot of paperwork. For example, it is not enough just to take an active role in discouraging wild animals from entering your field with a deer fence or the like—under GAP you must keep an active list of wild animals seen in the field and the time of the sighting. Similarly, cleaning schedules must be documented and all produce uniquely traceable by harvest date and personnel. In these ways, GAP certification goes above and beyond common-sense hygiene and enters the realm of accountability.
Farms that are neither GAP certified, nor following GAP protocol run the risk of contaminating their produce, although this impact is somewhat mitigated by using common-sense cleanliness standards. Because GAP lists certain activities as dangerous or unadvisable that may not be obvious, it is a good idea to at least be aware of GAP standards rather than relying only on common-sense.
Things to Keep in Mind When Preparing for a GAP Audit
GAP Audits cost a lot of money, given that the auditor must be paid for the length of the audit, including travel time. Additionally, the farm being audited may need to make changes in order to come up to code, which will add to the cost of the audit. Auditors charge around $100 an hour and an audit can take about three hours to perform. Audits must happen on a yearly basis, but often do not take as long once a farm has been initially certified. Audits must also happen during a harvest period, so if multiple crops need certification, there may need to be multiple inspections. Since facility use often overlaps between crop types, the second certification may not take as long as the initial one. While the hourly rate cost is unavoidable, the most important thing you can do to minimize the cost is to be fully prepared before the audit even starts. Below is a list of suggested steps to take before conducting an audit [Source 2].
1. Attend a food safety/GAP workshop or session.
Why? GAP certification is a lengthy, technocratic process and the more background information and advice you have about it, the better. Some problems or violations that may seem to require an expensive solution may actually be solved inexpensively and still meet GAP standards. Talking with people who have been through a certification or who are authorized auditors can provide insight into ways to save time and money.
2. Find out what kind of certification your buyer(s) requires.
Why? Each buyer you sell to may require certification from a specific audit company, so make sure you know beforehand if there is a specific company you must use in order to be properly certified in your client’s eyes. You will benefit from knowing which certification and which company your buyer requires before the audit since they may require different information than is covered in the GAP manual.
3. Appoint a food safety plan point person.
Why? This person is required under the GAP checklist, so having one picked out will address that issue. Additionally, as your farm prepares for an audit, the point person can help coordinate all the steps that need to be taken, including being in charge of training employees in proper procedure.
4. Make necessary updates of changes to your operation according to what the certification agency requires.
Why? If there are issues with your farm that you see prior to the audit, there is no reason not to address them. Losing points for something you could have easily corrected quickly, or with enough time prior to the audit will be frustrating, and could lead to a failing grade. Be sure to pay attention to the details listed by the certifying agency or in the GAP manual, and also take any tips you can from farmers who have already been certified, since they may have ideas that could save you money.
5. Complete a GAP manual for your farm.
Why? A GAP manual is required for each farm being audited, so in order to not fail immediately, be sure to have your farm’s manual created and have a copy for the auditor. GAP manuals will go through every aspect of the farm’s operating procedure and have named an individual as in charge of enforcing those policies. To help speed up the audit process, arrange your manual in the order of the USDA GAP checklist so that it is easy for the auditor to match farm processes up with GAP protocol. When possible, also use the terminology found in the GAP checklist, as this will also speed up the auditor’s understanding of how process lines up with GAP protocol. Having a GAP manual and enforcer will also help you realize GAP on your farm.
6. Become familiar with your documentation system.
Why? The documentation system required for the audit is not just for show—you need to be able to use it and explain it coherently to the auditor during the audit. The more you practice using your regular documentation, the easier it will become in your routine. Most documentation required will be associated with some location on your farm. Because one of the required documents is an overall farm map, make sure the map location can be easily matched to the documents associated with it. You can do this matching with colored pens or numbered areas.
7. Train your employees in proper procedure.
Why? The auditor will assess the farm during a harvest period, and so employees will be involved in the audit. Not only will you want them well-informed for the audit, but the long-term documentation required for an audit will require employee involvement. Use your food safety point-person to train your employees on the necessary procedures.
8. Conduct a self-audit.
Why? Audits can be difficult to pass given the number of details that must be gathered together and carefully examined all at once. Additionally, they are costly to begin with and not something you want to draw out unnecessarily, or fail outright. Therefore, conducting a self-audit is a less costly way of determining if you’re ready for the real thing. It will also prepare your employees for the experience of having their behavior monitored from a food safety standpoint.
9. Schedule an audit with the certifier of your choice.
Why? Certification cannot happen unless you take action. If you’ve followed these steps towards preparation it should be a fairly painless, albeit potentially stressful, process. Remember to make your audit appointment with the certifier requested by your buyer, otherwise the buyer may not consider the certification valid.
Online Resources for GAP Audits
Michigan State University Extension has a useful site devoted to understanding and preparing for GAP audits. There is a downloadable checklist on the site with prepared required documentation paperwork that can easily be printed out and posted around the farm. Additionally, there are brief tutorials about the GAP process that are worth watching [Source 3].
Be sure to check out the USDA’s website regarding GAP certification. They run the program, so their forms will be the most up-to-date. They also list other certifications offered for specific produce, which may be worth examining depending on your farm’s situation [Source 4].
Even though MIFarmFoodSafety.org is Michigan based, the information about GAP certification can be applied elsewhere. This site has a comprehensive list of resources for GAP certification, answers many questions farmers commonly have about GAP, and has good overall coverage of GAP issues and resources [Source 5].
1) Most information in this document comes from personal communication with Phil Tocco, Michigan State University Extension service, 3/16/12.
2) Michigan Farm Food Safety: Where Do I get Started? Accessed 5/05/12
3) MSU Agrifood Safety Work Group. Accessed 5/05/12
4) USDA: Grading, Certification and Verification. Accessed 5/05/12
5) Michigan Farm Food Safety. Accessed 5/0512