“Regulation doesn’t have to be a bad word.” That’s what Hans Estrin, a produce safety educator at UVM Extension, wants farmers to know about a voluntary program aimed at reducing food safety risks.
President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law in 2011, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized the FSMA Produce Safety Rule in 2015. The Produce Safety Rule sets national standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce for the first time. Amid these new standards, adoption of on-farm food safety practices will be crucial to Vermont growers who wish to increase market access and maintain market integrity.
So how can Vermont’s small to medium size produce farms maintain market credibility? With the help of funding and sponsors, the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association (VVBGA) organized a program called the Community Accreditation for Produce Safety (CAPS). A group of farmers and service providers have established 18 required produce safety practices for participating farmers to follow.
Hans is the CAPS Coordinator. “Empowering growers to take the lead, owning their regulatory process is essential … overall the impact is much greater when farmers are taking the lead,” said Hans.
To gain accreditation, local farms have developed and documented safety plans that fit their operations. The plans are then reviewed by peers and a CAPS certificate is awarded. In 2016, 61 farms successfully completed CAPS. To maintain approval in 2017, farms completed a revised plan. This year, CAPS launched an optional on-farm verification audit, known as CAPS+. Hannaford Supermarkets has agreed to accept CAPS accreditation for farms that successfully complete a CAPS+ audit in lieu of USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification.
In collaboration with UVM Extension, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, And Markets (VAAFM) produce safety team members will conduct the audits. Hans says working with VAAFM produce staff has been helpful in meeting the needs of an increasing number of farms seeking accreditation. In 2017, CAPS participation increased by 44 percent with 91 farms signing up.
In August, Hans lead the produce safety team on a training day at Maple Wind Farm, a medium sized produce farm located in Huntington. Following the audit guidelines, the day was grouped into four basic steps.
Step 1. A review of Maple Wind Farm’s CAPS produce safety plan.
Step 2: After arriving on the farm, Hans and VAAFM staff meet with the farm manager to tour the farm and go over their produce safety plan. Staff collected key documents and assessed each CAPS requirement.
Step 3: VAAFM staff conducted an interview with a farm employee. They asked questions about farm procedures works, health and hygiene policies and accessibility to first aid kits.
Step 4: A review of any non-compliance issues with the farm manager. If a farm is not doing what’s laid out in their plan, then that specific requirement is labeled “non-compliant.” The score sheet is sent to Hans, who will facilitate resolution of any issues found during the audit.
The last step is where Hans would say there’s been “a major culture change.” By stepping foot on these farms and taking time to explain the issues with farmers face-to-face, more and more farmers are starting to buy in.
“You can really feel the impact, and a lot of it’s positive,” said Hans.