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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Launches Program To Prevent Foodborne Disease in Vegetables

LAS CRUCES - While crops are covered by an abundance of safe pesticide application laws, few guidelines address safe production and handling of fresh produce. To prevent bacterial contamination, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service has launched a "good agricultural practices" program, GAPs for short.

Vince Hernandez, left, a production coordinator for Las Cruces-based Biad Chili, reviews a new "good agricultural practices" program involving chile and other fresh vegetables with Roy Pennock, a research specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. To prevent foodborne disease, the program includes step-by-step assessments of a grower's operation to determine possible contamination points. (10/08/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Critical control points include irrigation water sources for vegetable crops, clean water movement in relation to animal operations and manure use methods. Other key factors are worker sanitation, along with produce handling and packing.

"Fresh vegetable produce contamination can occur anywhere along the farm-to-fork chain," said Nancy Flores, a food technology specialist with NMSU Extension. "That's why this GAPs program is a much needed tool to reduce microbial contamination on the farm."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the impact of foodborne diseases on health in the United States is considerable.

"GAPs is a good, common sense approach that fresh vegetable growers can utilize to meet consumer concerns and awareness about food safety," said Roy Pennock, a research specialist with NMSU's GAPs project. "Currently, our main focus is on commercial growers who contract with food processors."

Among the program's elements are step-by-step assessments of a grower's operation from planting to harvest to determine possible contamination points, he said. Included in this review is an emphasis on lot identification and record keeping, in addition to trace-back tracking, which is increasingly important to commercial food processors.

Clear, precise documentation of all management areas, along with written standard operating procedures for food safety are also important, Pennock said. This would include training workers in sanitation and safe handling procedures, he said.

"Today, GAPs is an industry-driven, voluntary program," Pennock said. "There are no official governmental regulations. But growers are starting to hear from inside the food processing industry about the creation of third party inspections."

In other words, produce buyers would require annual, independent inspection audits to certify GAPs compliance, he said. One reason behind this push from buyers is their growing need to meet product liability and trace-back concerns. Moreover, a grower's name on a GAPs national certification list indicates a commitment to deliver consistent quantity and quality, Pennock said.

In New Mexico, third party inspections are available at a reasonable cost from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, he said. The USDA is also posting the names of state-certified operations on its Web site.

"Passing a GAPs audit is no easy feat," Pennock said. "There's a steep learning curve, which is why one of our top goals is to provide on-farm assessment and training to help growers pass these on-farm audits."

For more information, contact Pennock at (505) 644-9387. Information is also available online at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/gap.