The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission is launching a food safety certificate program targeting growers, ranch managers and harvest crew supervisors.

The certificate caps the commission’s development since 2009 of a series of five classes focused on food safety at the harvest level.

About 2,200 employees, representing 87% of the state’s strawberry producers, have attended classes so far, said Andrew Kramer, manager of grower communications.

“It is proof that a farm level employee who has food safety responsibilities knows what practices need to be implemented during harvest,” he told about 40 participants in a Nov. 20 web seminar.

“We have also been asking shippers to consider making it a requirement to have at least one employee from the farms that supply fruit to them be a certificate holder or pursuing a certificate,” Kramer said. “A handful of shippers have already expressed they’re committing to making that a requirement for their farms.”

Class information and registration is available at a new website. The next classes will be in the Oxnard area in the weeks after Thanksgiving, moving gradually to Santa Maria and, in February and March, to Salinas and Watsonville.

“We typically try to offer our classes in about a month’s period before harvest begins, which is why we go from south to north,” he said.

The program offers a certificate, but not a certification. “It’s not to be construed as an audit or any kind of verification of food safety practices on the farm,” Kramer said. “It’s simply a way to recognize and motivate people in the industry to pursue the knowledge of food safety practices we believe are important to implement on strawberry farms during the harvest period.”

The commission focused on harvest because of the labor-intensive nature of strawberries. Plants are picked about every three days through seasons that last six to 10 months. About 50,000 workers harvest California strawberries each year.

To get the certificate, participants must score 80% or higher on a series of multiple choice tests. The fifth class ends with a self-evaluation of food safety practices submitted by employees to their growers.

The classes are Introduction to Food Safety; Teaching Food Safety; Food Safety for the Harvest of Processing Berries; Tracking Food Safety on Your Farm; and Implementing Food Safety.

The program is partly funded by a California specialty block grant program.