As consumers’ interest grows about where their food comes from, who is growing their food and assurances that their food is safe, it becomes more and more important for farmers to take steps to address these issues.

One step farmers can take is to complete a Good Agricultural Practices program that is offered by University of Illinois Extension. Once farmers complete the program, they receive GAPs certification.

Farmers have seen a response at their farmers market booth when they display their GAPs certificate.

“They have a lot more people coming by that booth because people recognize the GAPs certificate of training and prefer to buy from that farmer than a farmer without GAPs training,” explained Ellen Phillips, U of I Extension local food systems and small farmers educator at the Cook County Unit.

“The purpose of GAPs is to minimize and try to prevent contamination, and we do that by redundant reductions,” she said. “We try to reduce contamination at every point — from the time you put fertilizer on the soil until the time the produce leaves your hand.”

The GAPs training covers many topics, including water quality, soil amendments such as manure, compost or fertilizers, worker health and hygiene, field and packing facilities, sanitation, transportation, distribution and traceback.

After completing the training portion of the program, farmers then write a food safety plan for their farm.

A food safety plan includes a map of the production and marketing operation. This map will show the location of the production area — where the fields are located, as well as the marketing operation, including the area for post-harvest handling, refrigeration and storage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of five people will be affected by a food-borne illness in their lifetime.

“That includes meat, not just produce,” Phillips said.

“But it is easy to be tired after working 18-hour days to forget to put the chlorine in the water one day,” she said. “That’s the kinds of things we try to work with in developing food-safety plans, so things don’t happen when you’re exhausted.”

Over the past several years, the types of produce that have been associated with food-borne illness outbreaks include lettuce, sprouts, cantaloupe, spinach, cucumbers, mangos and leafy greens.

“The exterior of a cantaloupe has lots of curves and holes where bacteria can be held, and when you slice through the cantaloupe, you introduce the bacteria into the center of the melon,” Phillips explained.

In addition, cantaloupe has a porous stem.

“If it is processed wrong, the water can be sucked into the fruit, which is a perfect growing environment for pathogens, so there are a lot of reasons why cantaloupe is a concern,” the educator said.

I think completing the GAPs training would be a great way for farmers to show consumers they are striving to produce food as safely as possible. It seems like a great use of anyone’s time involved in food production and especially for those who market their products directly to consumers.