During the heated debate last year over the newly enacted Food Safety Modernization Act, small farmers were loud and clear with their concerns about burdensome food safety regulations. Farmers across the country, along with sustainable agriculture interest groups, even managed to beat out large ag interests and win certain exemptions from new food safety rules, under the Tester amendment.

“Farmers want to work the land, they don’t want to spend days upon days trying to figure out paperwork,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Joined by a broad coalition of industry, non-profit, and government stakeholders, Merrigan Thursday unveiled a new, free online tool to help farmers create customized food safety plans. The platform will help streamline the process, making it easier for farms of all sizes to create a comprehensive plan aimed at reducing food safety risks, whether or not they fall under the purview of new FSMA requirements.

The tool, part of FamilyFarmed.org’s On-Farm Food Safety Project, is the first of its kind that has a broad range of input and expertise — from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to trade groups to ag extension specialists. It will be especially helpful for small- and mid-sized farmers to achieve Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) harmonized standards and certification, all aimed at ensuring fruits and vegetables are produced, handled and stored in the safest manner possible.

The easy-to-use online platform (www.onfarmfoodsafety.org) was developed with funding from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). Large buyers, which usually require GAP food safety certification, including, Compass Group, SYSCO, and Chipotle Mexican Grill supported the project financially and with technical assistance. 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 USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“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 non-profit 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, a producer must answer a series of questions online — on a variety of areas, including worker health and hygiene, previous land use, pest control, packinghouse activities, and product transportation. In addition to helping farmers create a food safety plan, the tool offers farmers a full set of record-keeping templates to document their food safety efforts as well as useful food safety resources.

The tool makes customizing a food safety program “approachable and less daunting,” said Will Daniels, vice president for food safety for Earthbound Farm, explaining that some large-scale auditing schemes, like the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, “really aren’t made for everyone.”

“Food safety is not something that should ignored by anybody,” he said at the U.S. Department of Agriculture event Thursday. “But it’s not a one-size-fits-all. This is really going to advance food safety for small and mid-sized producers.”