The winter conference for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) included a workshop on food safety. Held over the weekend in Saratoga Springs, the 29th annual event was larger than any previous, with registered attendance over 900, and walk-ins anticipated to bring the number well over a thousand.
The two-day food safety intensive began a day before the conference, and was titled “GAPs Is a Four-Letter Word, But So Are Safe and Food.” This workshop has run a dozen times across the state over the last few years, though not usually in an organic setting. Led by a team of food safety experts from Cornell Cooperative Extension and the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the workshops educate produce growers on minimizing food safety risks and building a food safety plan to incorporate into a GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) audit.
“Even if you don’t need an audit, even if no one is looking for a food safety plan, make one,” Betsy Bihn, National GAPs Program Coordinator at Cornell, told 25 people at the workshop. “Organic producers are doing a lot of record keeping already. In many instances you just need to tweak the records you’re already keeping.”
Bihn addressed a mixed crowd that included growers, a farmers market organization, and the chef, buyer and sustainability coordinator from nearby Skidmore College. The three were interested in buying local, and curious, among other things, about what kind of food safety documentation they might seek from potential suppliers.
Wegman’s was the first supermarket in New York State to require food safety certification from its vendors, and other chains have followed suit. The GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) program, established in 1999, is an audit system operated by USDA trained inspectors. Wholesale purchasers, such as Wegman’s, now ask their suppliers for GAPs certification, which is renewed annually.
In New York state the process of educating growers is well-organized, with support from Cornell such as online and live workshops. Participants receive a day of training on food safety in the field and in handling methods, and leave with a bag of materials, including signs to post onsite, a food safety DVD, photo novellas, and coloring books in Spanish and English. The state offers relatively inexpensive inspections from USDA-trained auditors through the Department of Agriculture and Markets. (Two auditors were at the workshop to explain the GAPs guidelines and what they look for in an audit.)
Despite this system, small produce growers and handlers feel harassed by the idea of more paperwork and government interventions.
“We’ve done some programs where the mood was so hostile, people spent a day venting,” said Robert Hadad, who also led the workshop and is the Regional Fresh Market Specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County. “We’ve moved to a two-day program so we can spend one day talking and one day making plans.”
The second day of the NOFA workshop was the first day of the conference, with sessions on farming business and agricultural practices. Attendance was lighter at the food safety workshop, but 10 people attached jumpdrives to laptops and used templates to devise food safety plans. As people wrote their food safety plans, the auditors and educators were available to help.
“I’ve been taking notes, to see what we have to address,” said Martha Johnson of Slack Hollow Farm, a vegetable producer in Argyle that wholesales to Honest Weight Food Coop, a large cooperative grocery story serving the state’s Capital District. “Some of it is things we’ve been thinking about, so we can apply this. Some of the stuff we’ve been already doing because we’re organic, like testing the water.”
Gayle Faulkner from J. Faulkner Farms, a diversified vegetable grower from Olean, New York, found the workshop very helpful, and had a good start on her food safety plan. She didn’t plan on scheduling an audit because her farm doesn’t yet have buyers who request the certification, but she was happy to be prepared.
People from Community Markets worked on a document to help highlight food safety for the growers who sell at the farmers markets they develop and manage in New York City and surrounding counties.
“We want to honor the trust that the shopper has put into us and our vendors. We want to encourage the farmers and producers that sell at our markets to develop and implement food safety plans. We want to be able to speak honestly with the public about the safety of the food we’re providing,” said Jon Zeltsman, co-director of Community Markets.
Zeltsman noted that the food safety information was helpful, too, in terms of addressing food safety at their market sites, for cooking demonstrations and sampling.
“Growers are independent business people,” Bihn explained as the room emptied for lunch. She likes people who ask questions and don’t accept all the information as given. They may be skeptical in the workshop, but likely will go home, look at their practices, and apply what they have learned. “The goal of this course is to get people aware of risks. You want your growers thinking about food safety. It’s a risk reduction thing.”