“Set some achievable goals, get started on them, and remember you don’t have to do the whole thing at once” is Trevor Suslow’s advice to California almond growers as they shoulder programs for good agricultural practices (GAPs) aimed at food safety.

Suslow, an Extension postharvest pathology specialist at the University of California, Davis, detailed how growers can establish GAPs for their operations in a presentation during the 33rd Annual Almond Industry Conference in Modesto.

In response to recalls of contaminated almonds in 2001 and 2004, the Almond Board of California (ABC) adopted in 2004 a voluntary action plan for growers, hullers and shellers, and handlers to reduce microbial contamination from bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli.

“Even though these incidents were isolated and occurred three years apart,” said Merle Jacobs, ABC product quality manager, “the board realized aggressive measures were necessary to prevent any future occurrences. The healthy reputation of our product depends upon doing so.”

Mandatory monitoring

The board anticipates a mandatory monitoring program in 2006 after the industry completes research and procedures, including steps for pasteurization of raw, unprocessed almonds. Jacobs said the program will not become mandatory until the industry has the capacity to comply with the regulations.

In pointing the way to adopt GAPs, Suslow said they extend beyond microbial issues to address an array of chemical and physical contaminants, along with allergens and toxins.

He said once growers understand the importance of a program, they can proceed to develop individual plans tailored to their operations. “Growers innovate their own mitigating practices, and it is incumbent upon you to figure out the specifics of what to do, how to do it, and how often. There are plenty of sources for guidance.”

The Salmonella microbe shows up in peanuts and other produce and has great capacity for survival in conditions not previously thought possible. Although pasteurization will eliminate a certain level of it, appropriate production practices will still be needed.

Suslow reminded that only a few contamination outbreaks can lead to damaging perceptions among the public. Many crops, particularly those with multiple handling by humans, are under intense scrutiny for improved food safety measures.

Trace to farm

When regulatory agencies investigate instances of contamination, he said, “they trace sources back to the farm. Although they rarely find specifics on where the contamination actually came from, they often find identifiable failings in good handling practices.”

Guidelines for GAPs to minimize microbial food safety hazards were developed in 1998 by FDA in cooperation with the produce industry and university scientists and are based on both prevention and “redundant reductions” of contamination.

“You put practices in place to minimize risk of such contamination taking place, and the guidelines have become the standards that buyers and regulators use to judge performance,” he said.

Growers may already have several “good sense” practices in place that follow the guidelines, Suslow said, but they also need to be aware of numerous sites of potential contamination, from fertilizers and irrigation water to harvesting equipment and handling. “Food safety has to be integral to all crop management processes.”

When approaching controlling contamination at the farm level, Suslow said growers need to remember that “consumers don’t want you to sanitize filth, so do everything you can to prevent it from being there in the first place.”

Start, set goals

Although implementation of GAPs may be considered “too much trouble” by many growers, he said, in fact, the important thing is to get started, not be intimidated by the task, and set achievable goals.

“GAPs are a responsible part of every business plan to minimize risk for your operation and the entire industry. GAPs make good business sense.”

Suslow said the importance of having GAPs programs in place was dramatized by the nearly 1,000 cases of Hepatitis A infections linked to green onions during 2002-2003.

When the cases were announced by FDA, the green onion market crashed. “A lot of volume was lost, but those growers who had an effective and recognizable GAP program kept a fairly confident volume and there was no impact on the other crops they grew.

“If they had started a GAP program, their volumes of green onions were down a bit for a short period and there was a short period of limited impact on other crops they grew.”

For those who had no GAPs in place, their green onion volume was down by 50 percent and sales of their other crops were down by about 30 percent.

But those without GAPs and also identified as sources of contamination by FDA -- even though they ultimately were removed from the “core implicated group” -- had no sales, disked their onions, and saw their other crops refused.

Areas of concern

The ABC has identified four major areas of concern for on-farm contamination for almond growers. First, contamination of water used for irrigation or foliar sprays can be avoided by growers identifying sources such as unsafe water routes, shared water pipelines or canals, and seasonal effects on the supply.

Second, manure used as fertilizer should be adequately composted, even though ABC does not recommend the use of manure. The orchard floor should be considered “a food contact surface” and growers should only apply properly composed manure after harvest and before January 1. Manure should not be applied during the growing season.

Store manure away from the orchard and place physical barriers to prevent runoff into water sources, the orchard, or other areas where contamination could occur. Clean all equipment used in handling manure and incorporate the material into the soil when it is applied.

Third, droppings from domestic and wild animals, including birds and rodents, which can be spread in irrigation water or by human activity, are a source of contamination. Pets should be kept out of orchards and an effective rodent management program should be implemented.

The fourth source of contamination is poor human hygiene caused by inadequate toilet and hand washing facilities. Toilets should be placed within one-quarter-mile of the orchard work area. Place toilets to minimize risk of contamination of the orchard, equipment, irrigation water, or any other area that could lead to contamination.

Check for leakage or spillage when having portable toilets cleaned. Permanent facilities should be checked for possible cross-connection with water used in foliar sprays and for backflow.

Adoption of GAPs also requires documentation of farm history, employee training, equipment sanitation, orchard floor management, and other measures to promote food safety.

Additional details on GAPs for almonds are available at www.AlmondBoard.com or 209-549-8262.