Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Business Food Safety
Testing the waters


November 30, 1999
By Treena Hein

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It’s an accepted fact that food safety is now a top concern among consumers, governments and all others who are a part of Canada’s food production system.

It’s an accepted fact that food safety is now a top concern among consumers, governments and all others who are a part of Canada’s food production system.

That’s why over the last 10 years, the Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC) has leveraged federal funding to set up voluntary standards to minimize food safety risks that meet provincial and federal guidelines. In September 2008, CHC launched the CanadaGAP Program (Good Agricultural Practices:  www.canadagap.ca), a food safety certification program for producers, packers and storage intermediaries of horticultural crops. It does not certify products, but certifies (through a third party) that operations are meeting required food safety standards on an ongoing basis.

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“The program is important for Canadian fruit and vegetable growers to meet demands from their customers,” says Heather Gale, CanadaGAP national program manager. “In Canada and the U.S., as well as offshore markets, fresh produce suppliers are increasingly being asked to demonstrate compliance with credible, HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points)-based food safety programs. Certification to CanadaGAP enables growers and packers to meet those requirements.”

Participating in the first year of the program were 700 growers and participating in the second year were about 900 growers. The cost of certification can range from approximately $600 to more than $1,000 annually, depending on the certification option the customers require, the scope of the operation and where the facility is located. Certification involves checking conformance to a checklist, which includes inspection of manuals and related records, and interviewing farm business operators and staff. A recall readiness system must be in place. Multi-crop producers need only one audit.

The government has played a key role in developing the program, says Gale, and maintains oversight of any changes to technical requirements. Each commodity-specific module has undergone a rigorous technical review by a team of specialists from the federal and provincial governments. The modules are updated with more clarity and specifics during the annual program review.

CanadaGAP was also designed to conform to the requirements of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), something very important to the customers of Burr Farms Ltd., a family-run farm in Delta, B.C., that has participated in the program since 2008. (CHC hasn’t yet finished benchmarking the program to GlobalGAP.) On 300 acres, they grow potatoes and rutabagas for the fresh market and green beans for a processor who does the harvesting and freezing.

“CanadaGAP is the program we support because it is associated with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), it is national and it is now recognized by GFSI,” says Burr Farms food safety manager Chris Burr. “This has really made a difference amongst buyers in terms of acceptance of the program. This, is turn, helps us to work towards or stay with one audit. (Burr Farms belongs with other growers to a company called BC Fresh.) Some customers want more than one and some farmers in our group have had to do up to three audits, which is very costly in monetary and time terms.”

B.C. Fresh farmers were introduced to the program through the B.C. Vegetable Marketing Commission (BCVMC).
“When we first received the booklet, it was quite overwhelming, but then you start to realize you’re doing most of it already,” Burr notes.

It was very helpful, she says, when the BCVMC hired a person to visit individual farms and explain CanadaGAP in detail.

“It helped a lot in understanding what’s involved,” says Burr.

Later, the B.C. Fresh CEO decided to hire Burr “to be a co-ordinator and help the other growers in the group learn and prepare for their audits.”

They were all using good agricultural practices, but Burr says CanadaGAP took it to a higher level.

“Some of us have had to add a new practice here and there, but we all basically most of all had to add more documentation. Everyone had spray records, but we now have lots of documentation on cleaning, rodent control and other practices.”

Documentation – for example, of how to do things, or keeping track that washrooms are fully stocked with supplies – is one of the bigger issues that farmers should focus on first in terms of improving food safety, observes Elsie Friesen, the food safety and quality specialist with the Agri-Food Protection Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture.

“It’s also critical for traceability, but not something many farmers are used to doing,” says Friesen, who runs B.C. Good Agricultural Practices workshops and has built a guide based on the content of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Advantage Good Agricultural Practices resources (a license agreement is in place). “For your customers, documentation is needed but also if someone else has to step in for you, if the documentation is there, he or she will know exactly what to do.”

Two other issues Friesen thinks farmers should be paying attention to most are testing water sources and biosecurity.
“If you test your water source, used for top irrigation, for example, and it doesn’t meet standards, you can do bottom irrigation, purify your source or take other action,” she says.

With regard to biosecurity, Friesen says farmers must take action to safeguard their property “from whatever is out there” by restricting visitors and putting effective protocols in place.

“You should also do things like make sure you handle raw compost with different tools than are used with mature compost, and watch transfer of organisms from other farms,” says Friesen.

Although he is quick to say that CanadaGAP has definitely improved awareness of food safety for all producers and his own staff – and that the very existence of the program “adds credibility to the safety of our food,” Michael Van Meekeren can list several significant challenges. Van Meekeren is part owner of Van Meekeren Farms Ltd. in Lake-ville, N.S., where they grow organic and conventional apples and conventional pears for markets in Canada, U.S., Europe and the Middle East.

One of those challenges has been to work with the program as it develops, with changes to modules being made annually.

“You have to accept you’re dealing with a moving target and most producers prefer not to change things year after year,” Van Meekeren says.

He’s also noticed that auditors can have an inconsistent interpretation of the program.

“We’ve observed situations where one auditor does not feel an item is a compliance issue, but then the next will report a non-compliance for the same thing,” he says. “It would be much more efficient and fair to have internal auditors consulted when certification auditors find ‘gray’ issues.”

Van Meekeren would also like to see more consumer education on CanadaGAP to build confidence in Canadian products. He thinks growers need to send a message to customers that taking part in CanadaGAP adds cost, but that it’s worth it.

“It comes down to money and time taken from business without being reimbursed by customers,” he says. “It’s a part of doing business, and CanadaGAP’s affiliation with GFSI is necessary for export.”

Burr agrees. “It’s time-consuming and you have to have someone overseeing it, but after three audits, I don’t find the program challenging at all. Traceability is faster and I feel that I’m more than ready if any issue comes up.”

Lots of resources (password-protected for those on the road to certification) are available on the CanadaGAP website. Producers/packers without a password can get a free electronic copy by calling 613-226-4880 ext. 206 or sending an e-mail to offs@hortcouncil.ca. Across the country, government agencies and produce organizations offer GAP learning opportunities. A CD of the B.C. guide is available for free by calling 1-888-221-7141. For Ontario’s Advantage GAP Practices Manual and more, call 1-877-424-1300 or go to www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/foodsafety/producers/resources.htm .