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Ag Department offering farmers help with safe produce certification

Mississippi vegetable and fruit growers who want to reap the benefits of the nation’s growing appetite for fresh produce need to show they use safe and sanitary harvesting and crop handling practices.

Mississippi's specialty farmers can grow their markets through USDA safe production and handling certification.

Mississippi’s specialty farmers can grow their markets through USDA safe production and handling certification.

The industry standard is U.S. Department of Agriculture certification through Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) audits. The testing certifies safe and sanitary practices throughout the production and supply chain. Specifically, the audit ensures that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest way possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.

Getting certified can be a financial burden that growers would rather not take on. That’s where the Mississippi Ag Department can help.

Through USDA grant, the department is offering to cover 75 percent of the costs of the food safety audit, up to $500, said Paige Manning, marketing director.

The department will even provide the inspector, she said. . The department’s Kevin Riggin is USDA certified to do the inspections. Because his travel time to a farm is part of the certification cost, Rigging tries to schedule as many inspections as he can in the same areas.

Specialty crops falling under the certification program are fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and horticulture and floriculture items.

The cost is set by the USDA at $92 an hour, though the time needed for an inspection varies, Manning said.

Certification is good for one year, though unannounced follow-up inspections are made, according to Manning.

So far, only 20 to 24 growers in the state have received USDA safe handling certification. Manning said she hopes the financial help the state is providing will significantly increase the certification numbers. “We just got everything completed about two weeks ago,” she said in an interview last week.

The idea is to open new markets for small growers. “If you have a distributor who is going to be handling your product they want to be sure your product is going to have that certification. It’s not a requirement but there are some retailers that require farmers to have it if they are going to sell to them,” she said.

“We’re trying to open up some doors.”

America’s consumers are eager to but they need to have confidence the fresh produce has been handled safely, said Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s secretary of agriculture and commerce.

“Consumers are more interested than ever in where their food comes from,” she said. “They are just really fascinated with food-to-table. Anything we can do to enhance that is my goal.”

(Details: Michael Lasseter at 601-359-1120 or michaelL@mdac.ms.gov.)


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