USDA Program Aims to Improve Food Safety

Washington: The On-Farm Food Safety Project was unveiled at US Department of Agriculture headquarters by a broad partnership of food and agriculture organizations. Agriculture deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan will help to debut the new online tool, available at no charge to farmers, and demonstrate its ability to mitigate farm-based food safety risks.

The tool is voluntary and enables produce growers to create customized food safety plans, and thus, adopt and document best practices in food safety. It is the first of its kind and was developed by the nonprofit with lead funding from the USDA Risk Management Agency. A broad coalition of farm and produce industry partners helped create the program, available at .

In an era of growing concern about food safety, farmers of all sizes have sought out ways to build effective and manageable food safety programs in an economical manner. This tool will help produce growers improve their food safety protocols by helping them assess risks specific to their farms and suggesting risk-specific mitigations.

"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 nonprofit partners to introduce this free tool to farmers seeking to gain certification as a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) producer."

To generate a food safety plan using the tool the user answers a series of questions divided into the food safety risk areas. They include 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 recordkeeping templates to document food safety efforts and 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 customers. USDA's GAP audit verification program, administered by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), focuses on best agricultural practices to verify farms are producing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.

"Wholesale buyers are increasingly requiring that farms adopt and quantify best practices in food safety," says Jim Slama, president of "We created this tool in order to give farmers access to a system that allows them to meet the needs of these buyers, while minimizing risk."

Large buyers including Compass Group, SYSCO, and Chipotle Mexican Grill supported the project financially and with technical assistance. The tool, two-and-a-half years in development, was initiated by a conversation between and Will Daniels, senior vice president of food safety for Earthbound Farm, America's leading organic grower.

"Foodborne pathogens don't discriminate between small and large farms, but a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety isn't effective," said Daniels. "Programs have to be tailored to specific risks, which is what this tool does."

Slama and Daniels saw the importance of providing an affordable, relevant means by which smaller growers could develop food safety programs and the initiative was launched. Daniels agreed to chair the Technical Advisory Committee and, together, they recruited many national leaders in food safety to oversee the development of the project.

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 the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Through a consensus process, technical advisors developed the online tool to meet the needs of small and large growers.

"We are pleased that the On-Farm Food Safety Project sought out and engaged a broad-based community to develop this tool," says Dave Runsten, director of Policy and Programs for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. "It truly reflects the input of all levels of produce farmers and experts."

The tool integrates with Harmonized GAP standards developed by United Fresh Produce Association, thus helping farmers meet the food safety compliance specifications of most wholesale buyers.

"A full spectrum of stakeholders came together to create this online tool and we are grateful for their input," said Slama. "We invite farms of all sizes to use it and to give us feedback about their experience."