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In response to food safety concerns from retail and foodservice customers, Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard, CA, took a proactive position and began encouraging its avocado growers to become Good Agricultural Practices certified.

GAP certification helps prevent food safety issues. The program seeks to identify all potential sources of food contaminants that may exist on a farm or ranch, and it is designed to give growers all the tools they need to control and monitor any potential contamination sources they encounter.

Mission Produce is a global packer, importer, processor and distributor of avocados and asparagus. The company has seven nationwide distribution centers and operations in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Canada and New Zealand.

"Retail customers have required their suppliers to have Good Manufacturing Practices and food-safety programs in place. Now the push is towards growers," Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing, said in a Nov. 24 press release. "Realistically, every ranch or farm has some potential food- safety issue. A successful GAP program manages these issues effectively."

Keith Barnard, GAP coordinator for Mission, said in the release, "We began the program in April of 2009 and have been working with growers to get them familiarized with the program. Since avocados are a tree fruit, they are less susceptible to contaminants than ground-based commodities. Certification is different for each commodity, and avocados have less risk than spinach. But we see more stringent standards coming, and by moving ahead with the program, our growers will be prepared for the future."

Mission's GAP program is designed to control issues with land use, water source, ranch security, worker hygiene, food-safety training, sanitary facilities and crop protection fertilizers and pesticides.

"It's like an insurance policy for growers," Mr. Barnard said in the release. "Documents included in the GAP package will show a history of ranch compliances over the term of certification."

Food safety is a high-profile topic in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. It has gained media coverage nationwide and has received the attention of government agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With outbreaks of contamination in spinach and other leafy vegetables in recent history, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was established in 2007 to verify that leafy greens growers follow accepted food- safety practices. It was an unprecedented commitment to food safety designed to protect public health. There are currently no government regulations enforcing food safety standards for avocado growers.

The food-safety record in the avocado industry has been excellent with very few instances of foodborne illness. But the constant pressures from food retailers and foodservice establishments to address proper food-safety issues has prompted Mission to adopt the GAP program and Good Harvesting Practices for growing avocados in California.

Mr. Barnard added in the release, "In comparison to California, GAP programs in Mexico, Chile and Peru have much more stringent standards."

NSF Davis Fresh and Primus Labs are the third-party auditors working with Mission to award GAP certification.