UVALDE – With food safety a growing concern for consumers, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Department of Agriculture have been offering certification training for specialty crop producers who employ good food safety practices. The most recent training took place from 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. Led by Dr. Juan Anciso, AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist, the program was attended by several area producers.
Topics addressed at the training included an overview of good agricultural practices, microbiology for producers, on-farm microbiology concerns, the role of water in food safety, facility sanitation and documentation, and training employees on good food safety practices. GAP certification is a standard used by retail and food service industries to verify suppliers are conforming to specific agricultural best practices, Anciso explained.
“Agencies with food safety regulatory responsibilities inspect produce at many levels before it reaches the consumer,” Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Drew DeBerry said. “Through this training, Texas farmers are adding yet another layer of protection to ensure the safety of the fruit and vegetables we consume.”
He added that educating producers about the latest technological advances in good agricultural practices is the first line of defense against foodborne illnesses.
“Our first GAP training was in McAllen, so this is the second training, and there are two more scheduled for other parts of Texas before year end,” Anciso said. “So far, the response from crop producers has been good, and we’re finding a lot of interest from them about getting certification.”
The agriculture department and AgriLife Extension are encouraging farmers to participate in these trainings, which focus on food safety recommendations and best practices as identified by the food industry, academia and the government.
“It was interesting learning more about the biology of foodborne illnesses and what can be done to prevent them,” said Nano Taffola, a food safety coordinator for Cargil Produce in Uvalde who attended the GAP training. “It confirmed what we already knew, which was how important it is to train employees to be aware and prevent contaminants from getting on produce while in the field.”
Tafolla said Cargil already implements almost all of the food safety procedures and principles identified in the training, but he wanted to attend to ensure the operation was completely prepared for a third-party audit toward certification, which they hope to complete by November.
“It’s not enough to say you have these food safety actions in place, you have to document them, and the training also emphasized how to do that,” he said.
Ashley Gregory, the AgriLife Extension program assistant coordinating GAP training opportunities, said training participants include not only larger producers, but also produce packers and shippers as well as small-acreage landowner farmers.
“Many of the big producers are already expected to be certified, but we’re seeing a lot of interest in further improving food safety from smaller producers and we’re focusing on getting even more of them to attend these trainings,” Gregory said.
“We are raising the bar for food safety,” Anciso said. “We expect that retailers will mandate that more and more operations have this certification before they do business with them.”
By attending the training, producers qualify for up to a $750 reimbursement toward defraying the cost of passing a third-party GAP audit as part of their certification process, Anciso said. The audit may be conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or one of several private companies.
He said funding for the training and reimbursements comes from a USDA block grant through the Texas Department of Agriculture. As with the other GAP trainings offered, the recent Uvalde program cost $40 per attendee, primarily to cover the cost of course materials and lunch. Each training attendee receives a notebook containing the principles and procedures discussed during the program.
“By participating in food safety education, everyone wins – producer, retailer and consumer,” Anciso said.
For more information or to register for GAP training, contact Anciso or Gregory at 956-968-5581.