By Austin Metz
Editor in Chief
Grand Rapids Community College and Michigan State University have teamed with local companies to certify local farmers to meet new distribution standards.
Phillip Tocco of Michigan State University is the instructor for the course and also helped develop the curriculum to teach to farmers.
“Prior to December of 2010, there were no federal rules on growing produce,” Tocco said. “Currently, farmers don’t have to be able to trace back the food they grow to the date it was picked, the farm field where it is picked or who picked it. The federal rule will give farmers specific labeling requirements they need to allow for faster, more targeted recalls.”
Julie Parks is the director of Workforce Training at GRCC and has also helped with the program.
“We did research and wholesalers need Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certified farmers,” Parks said. “The idea came from Sysco Foods, whom we work with because there is a need for more certified farmers.”
“The Department of Agriculture insurers require that farmers are GAP certified and distributors need to know where the food they get comes from,” Parks said. “The training includes eight hours of classwork and then the instructors will go out and visit the farms to make sure farmers are meeting the guidelines within the program.”
Walmart is one such company who has required farmers to be GAP certified which they started it in 2008.
“In 2008, WalMart sent a letter to all the farmers that grow produce for them,” Tocco said. “The letter made it clear that the future sales of produce were contingent on being GAP certified. Most other retailers are requiring this because of strong pressures from the companies that insure the retailers.”
Tocco explained that in instances like the recent cantaloupe Listeria outbreak, had the farmers been GAP certified, the death toll could have been eliminated.
“I’m sure you heard about the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak last fall,” Tocco said. “You probably didn’t know there was a celery outbreak in June last year. The reason you didn’t hear about it was that from the time the authorities were aware of a problem to the time all the product was recalled was less than 24 hours.”
“In the celery outbreak, nobody died and few were sickened due in large part to a very quick response and very accurate traceability,” Tocco said. “In contrast, it took days before the source of the cantaloupe outbreak was located and longer to recall all the cantaloupe.”
In instances like this, insurance companies were called on to fix the problem. These insurance companies are now putting pressure on companies to only use GAP certified farmers.
“The insurance companies are making it clear to the retailers that having farmers who are not GAP certified is a tremendous liability,” Tocco said. “In the cantaloupe outbreak, lawyers have estimated settlement costs for the families of the dead to be between $100 and $150 million.”
Tocco said that although the changes can be costly, it is necessary.
“Is complying with GAPs costly? Yes, but mostly in the amount of time it takes to document,” Tocco said. “If anyone suffers a recall in a crop that a farmer grows, the cost to that farmer will be much greater than any loss of time due to documentation.”
Currently, GRCC has teamed up with Sysco, Walsma Lyons, Morse Marketing Connections, and Michigan State University and is holding class Monday nights. The next training session starts April 9.
Parks explained that a large reason GRCC has become so involved with the GAP program is because of the school’s involvement in the culinary world.
“Part of the reason people are coming to GRCC for these programs is because of our culinary program,” Parks said. “It is the only program in Michigan like it at this time, but we are looking to team up with other companies to create more.”
For Parks, programs like this show the importance of the community college.
“I think whenever GRCC can connect employers or buyers of products with those selling products or people who need jobs, we show one of the things community colleges are about,” Parks said. “We are a part of economic development and programs like this help our community economically. That’s part of the value taxpayers get from GRCC.”