Launching a Vermont Produce Safety Accreditation Pilot Program

What is VVBGA’s Community Accreditation for Produce Safety (CAPS)?

CAPS is a voluntary program for the hundreds of vegetable and berry farms that due to their small size are exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  Developed by UVM Extension, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, farmers and other key stakeholders, the pilot program will accredit though the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Association (VVBGA), helping farmers to reduce risk and  maintain produce safety credibility in the marketplace.  CAPS is Vermont-made, by and for our farmers.

Below, VVBGA farmers writing Practical Produce Safety Plans around the kitchen table!

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Rationale for the program

Once the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is implemented many fresh produce growers will be required to adopt and document rigorous practices to reduce food safety risks. However, the law exempts smaller farms with less than $500,000 in annual sales of food if they sell at least 50% of that food to retail customers within a 275 mile radius. This means that the majority of Vermont growers will probably not be covered by FSMA. (The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported that nearly 800 farms in Vermont sold vegetables, but only 49 had annual gross sales of vegetables over $250,000.)

Over time, both wholesale and retail customers will want assurance that food safety practices are being followed on ALL the farms they buy from, regardless of their size. Further, farms that are exempt from FSMA and too small to justify a GAPS (Good Agricultural Practices) audit may face increased liability insurance costs unless they have credible food safety plans. Thus, Vermont growers will need a system of food safety ‘accreditation’ in order to remain competitive in the marketplace.

The groundwork for the CAPS program

Harlow Farm

In 2010, UVM Extension developed the Practical Produce Safety (PPS) program in response to the changing food safety landscape. Currently, PPS (consisting of a manual, template, workshops) is a cost and effective strategy for growers to write simple produce safety plans and  implement practices that minimize risk while maximizing produce quality and farm profitability. Since its creation PPS has helped more than 100 Vermont farmers write plans and implement simple risk reduction strategies, such as hand-washing and triple-washing greens.

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Accreditation through the VVBGA

The VVBGA community now offers its members an accreditation for produce safety (called CAPS). The VVBGA Board approved CAPS process including standards, fees, and statements allowed to be made by participating members. A disclaimer is associated with the program stating that CAPS is intended to provide credibility for growers seeking to improve food safety practices and easily explain these practices to their customers. CAPS has no legal or regulatory standing and it is not a guarantee of food safety.

new ext logoSupport from UVM Extension

UVM supports the VVBGA in developing CAPS for its members. Specifically, UVM Extension:

  • facilitates the work of an advisory board to design produce safety plan templates,policies and procedures for CAPS
  • Coordinates the development of the on-line platform for planning and verifying plan implementation
  • holds educational trainings, and
  • consults with growers to assist with writing and verifying implementation of their plans.

CAPS Advisers

CAPS Advisers are key stakeholders the guide program development, and help craft the CAPS tools and procedures. The Advisers include representatives from the VVBGA, Black River Produce (a wholesale distributor), the VT Agency of  Agriculture and the VT Department of Health.

Goals

  • Establish practical and cost-effective produce safety standards for small and medium-scale farms
  • Maintain market integrity by offering farmers a credible, transparent way of explaining their food safety practice to retail and wholesale customers.
  • Significantly reduce risk from food-borne pathogens on fresh produce.
  • Improve the quality and shelf-life of fresh produce.
  • Build a community of practice (with over 225 farms in the program by 2016) where growers and service providers share food safety information, on-farm experience, economics and scientific information. Much of this will take place through an interactive web-based “classroom.”

CAPS draws from the best programs and science-based knowledge.

CAPS development has drawn from the best existing programs, science base- evidence, and from farm-based experience of USDA GAPS, PPS and other food safety programs.  Current produce safety programs are often geared towards larger and less diversified farms preparing for third-party audits, and these programs have informed standard for CAPS, which will be geared towards smaller more diversified farms.  Some of the existing programs/ templates are briefly described here.