University's goal is to help farmers pass GAP audits

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

SUN VALLEY, Idaho -- University of Idaho and Idaho State Department of Agriculture officials are trying to make sure spud farmers know about and understand the latest revisions to the federal Good Agricultural Practices standards for potatoes.

The two groups held a joint meeting Aug. 31 during the Idaho Potato Commission's annual meeting in Sun Valley to inform farmers about the changes, which were released in June.

U.S. Department of Agriculture GAP audits are designed to show consumers that farmers are making the best effort possible to minimize the chances of microbial or chemical contamination of potatoes.

While the audits are theoretically voluntary, many processors require them in their contracts and the majority of potato farmers in Idaho go through the GAP certification process each year.

The ISDA contracts with the USDA to do the potato GAP audits in Idaho. UI's role is to educate farmers on how to get through them successfully.

UI potato specialist Nora Olsen told growers the GAP standards aren't going away and will probably only get more intense in the future.

Farmers are probably already performing a lot of these best handling practices, "so this would be a good time to dive in and make sure you have a good, sound food safety program in place," she said.

Olsen said the revisions released in June are mostly updates that attempt to clarify GAP standards that some farmers may be struggling to understand.

One of the biggest clarifications is that documentation is needed for almost everything.

"A lot of it is common sense and a lot of these things, farmers are already doing," Olsen said. "We just have to now prove it via documentation."

Having that documentation ready before the GAP audit starts is a good idea because the audits cost $92 an hour, UI potato researcher Lynn Woodell said.

"If you're looking for paperwork during the audit, it's going to cost you money," she said.

Woodell said farmers need to be able to trace their product backward and forward at least one step. Backward means where you got your seed from, and forward is where the crop goes when it leaves the field.

Farmers also need to have potable water available for all employees and well water is not necessarily potable, Woodell said. That means farmers need documentation the water has been tested and is potable.

All farmworkers must wash their hands before going to or returning to work and there must be signage in employees' predominant language telling them this. Work areas must also have designated smoking and eating areas.

Employees are required to know an operation's food safety policies and auditors can question them, so farmers need to make sure their workers understand the policies, Woodell said.

Cindy Stark, bureau chief of ISDA's Agricultural Inspections Division, said it's critical farmers have a written statement explaining what they will do if irrigation water tests above the allowable threshold for E. coli bacteria.

"We need to know you have put something in place that details what you will do if you exceed that threshold," she said.

Farmers also need to document the presence of wild animals in their fields. Auditors realize farmers can't document every animal, "but you just need to be able to say, 'We're checking,'" Woodell said.

Aberdeen spud farmer Ritchey Toevs said the GAP audits aren't unreasonable but preparing for them does take work and time.

"At this point, I think it's a legitimate program," he said Friday during the middle of an audit.

"It takes a little homework and it's fairly strenuous to prepare for, but we need to make a good-faith effort to keep our product clean."

UI has developed a 30-page manual that helps farmers prepare for the audits by walking them through the requirements step by step. To access the manual and other GAP resources, visit www.kimberly.uidaho.edu/potatoes/gap.htm

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