URI, Division of Agriculture launch fifth year of Good Agricultural Practices program

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Program for farmers is aimed at reducing risk of foodborne illness

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 10, 2007 – The contamination of spinach at commercial farms in California in 2006 raised public awareness about the importance of safe food handling practices by growers. To reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses from Rhode Island-grown fruits and vegetables, the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension and the R.I. Division of Agriculture are launching the fifth year of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program, a voluntary effort to certify safe produce handling practices at Rhode Island farms.

Farmers interested in participating in the 2007 GAP certification program are encouraged to attend an educational meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23 from noon to 4 p.m. at the USDA office, 60 Quaker Lane, Warwick.

According to URI food safety educator Lori Pivarnik, farmers who have already become GAP certified have come to consider the program a good business practice since they know that consumers want safe food. They found that it takes little effort to follow a few common sense rules. “That’s what this program is designed to do – provide guidelines to grow, harvest, package, process and/or transport fresh fruits and vegetables that will minimize any microbial food safety hazards that could occur,” she said.

The New England-wide program was launched in 2001 after URI’s Food Safety Education Program received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The purpose of the program is to educate farmers and certify growers who voluntarily participate in the program. The primary issues that farmers must address to reduce microbial contamination are worker health and hygiene, water quality, proper use of manure and biosolids, produce handling and sanitation.

Upon completion of training and a subsequent audit of their farm, the farm will become GAP-certified and receive resources to help market the farm as such. Since 2002, 17 farms from throughout Rhode Island have been certified. Growers must be recertified every three years.

“Rhode Island is the only state in New England to maintain this level of a GAP certification program, and it is proving to have additional benefits,” said Kenneth Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture. “We are engaged in this state in concerted efforts to incorporate locally grown produce into school menus, part of school wellness initiatives and a component of efforts to improve the viability of farms and maintain our ability to produce food locally. Many companies who provide food service to schools, such as Chartwells School Foodservice who initiated a pilot program in 2006, will only purchase fruits and vegetables from farms that are GAP certified.”

For more information, farmers should call Lori Pivarnik at 874-2972 or Martha Patnoad at 874-2960.