NSAC's Blog

Stories from the Field: From Food Safety Training to Audit Day

December 6, 2018

The owners of Spring Lake Family Farms. Photo credit: Spring Lake Family Farms.

The owners of Spring Lake Family Farms. Photo credit: Spring Lake Family Farms.

An audit or inspection can be a nerve-racking experience for any business owner. Farmers in North and South Carolina, however, have greatly benefited from having a trusted ally – the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) – to help them through the process. Through their Local Produce Food Safety Initiative, CFSA, an NSAC Member, provides farmers in the Carolinas with trainings, one-on-one assistance, and practical resources to help them comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules and successfully pass third party food safety audits.

With FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule (PSR) inspections about to begin nationwide, getting the kind of tailored, hands-on training like that provided through CFSA’s Local Produce Food Safety Initiative can make a huge difference for affected producers. CFSA’s food safety team is at the forefront of preparing farmers for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) GAP (“Good Agricultural Practices”) certification and the voluntary Harmonized GAP (H-GAP) Audit Program. USDA and FDA worked together to align the H-GAP certification with PSR for the first time this year.

Food Safety Training Need Grows with Demand for Local Food

Over the last several years, the demand for local food has increased steadily – from individual consumers as well as from wholesale buyers. For wholesale buyers, however, starting a purchasing relationship with a family farmer is often predicated on the producer’s ability to demonstrate sufficient food safety practices. In order to break into larger markets, family farmers are increasingly interested in undergoing a food safety audit; for many, this will be the first time they have developed a formal food safety plan.

In order to successfully navigate a food safety audit program or meet new food safety requirements, many producers (particularly smaller-scale, beginning, and limited-resource producers) will need hands-on training and technical assistance. CFSA is one of several organizations across the country working to address this need, and has provided real world training that is both cost-effective and successful to producers since 2011.

“Small scale family farms want to provide their customers with healthy food, and take their food safety responsibilities seriously,” said CFSA Executive Director Roland McReynolds. “But the food safety audit process is difficult to navigate for these farms because of their limited staff and resources. The Local Produce Safety Initiative levels the playing field, so that family farms can compete successfully in wholesale markets for local food.”

Intensive Training, Reliable Support

CFSA has trained and helped over 100 farmers to pass their GAP audits over the last seven years. Beginning farmers Gabe Lowder and Jeremy Allen of Spring Lake Family Farms recently joined the list of Local Produce Safety Initiative training graduates.

“Providing growers with hands-on technical assistance gives them the confidence needed to successfully undergo an audit, it also teaches them how to communicate with the auditor during the audit process,” said Patricia Tripp, CFSA’s Local Produce Safety Manager. “We often find that small, diversified farms need to advocate for certain practices on their farms when it comes to food safety, and we are there to help them communicate the science behind their practices.”

Spring Lake Family Farms is a small business in Albemarle, North Carolina that launched in 2014 and according to The Hydroponics Planet, uses aquaponics as their primary growing method. In order to prepare for their first GAP audit, Lowder and Allen first attended a one-day CFSA workshop entitled, “Navigating the GAP Audit”. This initial training provided Lowder and Allen with the initial knowledge they needed to manage food safety risks on their farm, but that wasn’t the end of their education.

After the one-day workshop, CFSA followed up with additional resources for Spring Lake Family Farms, such as a food safety plan template that includes all required records and documents to successfully pass a GAP audit. Then, CFSA provided on-farm technical assistance to ensure that the knowledge and materials Lowder and Allen received from the workshop were executed properly. This thoughtful follow-up work helps producers who go through CFSA trainings to better reduce their food safety risks and prepare for a GAP audit.

This fall, Lowder and Allen took their farm through its first GAP audit. Staff from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) – of which CFSA is a member organization – had the pleasure to observe Spring Lake Family Farms’ audit and see first-hand the outcome of CFSA’s hard work and training.

Training in Action, Audit Day Arrives

The morning of the audit, the CFSA team arrived early to answer any last minute questions. Once the auditor arrived, he first went through Spring Lake Family Farms’ food safety plan and records – which were well-organized and maintained thanks to CFSA’s templates. Then, the auditor observed harvest and post-harvest activities, including: proper handwashing before harvest to the packing, storage of product, and labeling of the product. Throughout the audit, the auditor peppered Lowder and Allen with questions about their food safety practices.

“The team assisted us in every avenue of preparation for our audit,” said Lowder in an interview with NSAC. “They helped us establish a food safety plan, held a class for training, came out for multiple farm visits, and were present the day of the audit. They assisted us every step of the way.”

At the end of the audit, CFSA staff Tay Fatke, Trish Tripp, Roland McReynolds, and Mary Beth Miller, and NSAC policy specialist Kelly Nuckolls were able to ask both the auditor and auditees questions to better inform their organization’s future educational efforts around food safety audits and compliance.

Federal Programs that Make Food Safety Training Possible

CFSA’s successful and cost-effective Local Produce Safety Initiative has been supported through several state and federal grants and partnerships, including USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grants (SCBG) and the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). In order to continue supporting the growth of small businesses and family farm operations nationwide, Congress must continue investing in this type of hands-on food safety training and assistance. Funding for programs like SCBG and FSOP is provided both through the 5-year farm bill as well as through the annual appropriations process.

Providing adequate funding for FSOP in the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill is a priority for NSAC, as well as for NSAC members like CFSA.

About CFSA

CFSA is a 40-year old membership organization of sustainable and organic farmers and businesses in the Carolinas, which has played an important role in expanding local and regional food markets. CFSA provides training and technical assistance programs for farmers and food entrepreneurs; beginning and limited-resource farmers make up a significant portion of their membership.

Navigating the new world of food safety inspections and audits can be a daunting task. Each farmer and farm operation have different levels of experience and knowledge about food safety and the food safety risks related to their operation, issues which simply cannot be covered by a one-size fits all classroom training model. By utilizing a combination of classroom trainings, practical materials, and on-farm assistance unique to each operation, programs like CFSA’s increase farmers’ ability to manage food safety risks, successfully pass a GAP audit, and enter new markets.

Categories: Food Safety

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