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WASHINGTON — A free, on-line tool can help small- and medium-sized growers meet food-safety requirements for large buyers who want to purchase certified sources of local produce, said Jim Slama, president of the non-profit FamilyFarmed.org, during a Dec. 15 press conference.

Mr. Slama unveiled the On-Farm Food Safety Project, which allows farmers to come up with a food-safety plan while learning how to mitigate food-safety risks, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s headquarters with USDA, retailer, farmer and produce trade association representatives.

"Effectively managing risk is important to all producers, and having an acceptable food-safety program is in the best interest of consumers, buyers and the farmers themselves,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, during the 40-minute press call. The USDA funded the on-line tool for farms to gain certification as a Good Agricultural Practices producer.

Farmers don’t want to spend countless days behind a computer, she added.

Two-and-a-half years in development, the on-line program is based on harmonized GAP standards and uses decision trees to help farmers develop a customized food-safety plan and document their practices. It also can help in preparing for a food-safety audit if a company decides to pursue GAP certification, Mr. Slama said.

Farmers answer questions on food-safety issues, such as worker health and hygiene, agricultural water, previous land use, soil amendments and manure, animals and pest control, packinghouse activities, product transportation, agricultural chemicals and field harvesting.

Groups that participated in the project include: Chipotle Mexican Grill, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Compass Group, Earthbound Farm, Farm Aid, FDA, NSF Agriculture, Produce Marketing Association, Sysco, The Organic Center, Western Growers, Wallace Center at Winrock International, Wild Farm Alliance, University of California-Davis, United Fresh Produce Association and the USDA National Institute for Food & Agriculture.

The project was launched after a conversation between Mr. Slama and Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity at Earthbound Farm.

After the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was developed, Mr. Daniels said that he recognized the need for a comprehensive food-safety tool that would be easy to use for smaller producers.

The Food & Drug Administration’s Senior Policy Analyst Michelle Smith said that the new on-line tool could not be more timely, as the FDA plans in early 2012 to propose the first-ever federal produce safety standards under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. While following GAPs may be common sense, some farmers have difficulty developing food-safety plans, and this tool will help with that, she said.

Buyers also are pleased with the latest innovation.

The tool allows Compass Group to move forward more confidently with buying local produce, said Marc Zammit, vice president of the company’s sustainability and culinary initiatives.

The foodservice company, which delivers 6 million meals a day, wants to buy from local sources to provide diversity in flavor and savings against the rising cost of transportation, Mr. Zammit said.

One of the biggest challenges for Chipotle Mexican Grill is keeping up a steady supply of locally sourced fresh produce as the company grows, and this project can help local farms establish food-safety programs, said Chipotle’s Phil Petrilli, mid-Atlantic regional director.

In 2011, Chipotle bought more than 10 million pounds of local produce, and he said that the company hopes to buy more in 2012.

From the farmer point of view, the on-line tool saves money.

Steve Murray, owner of the 300-acre Murray Family Farms, said, “If I can do this, anyone can do this.”

More buyers are demanding growers be GlobalGAP-certified, which can cost farmers $5,000 in consulting fees for starters, he said.

Mr. Murray said that he spent half a day answering questions and attaching documents to come up with a food-safety plan, which was tested by a mock audit. “This is going to save a huge amount of money,” he added.

With a food-safety plan in hand, Murray Farms plans to become GlobalGAP-certified by the 2012 growing season, he said.