When it comes to food safety, the California Avocado Commission is putting its money where its mouth is.

The Irvine-based commodity group is offering up to a $300 rebate to California avocado growers who complete a good agricultural practices audit and receive GAP certification.

The push for industrywide certification partly is the result of some larger retail and food service customers wanting only GAP-certified fruit, said Ken Melban, commission issues manager.

He compared food safety to a three-legged stool, with one representing handlers, one the growers and one the harvesters. Packers and handlers fall under good manufacturing practices.

“The fruit has to be GAP-certified, which means farm review, harvest review and facilities review,” Melban said. “All three have to be certified.”

Calavo Growers Inc. Santa Paula, Calif., has been a strong proponent of GAPs from the start, said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing.

Between 70% and 75% of its volume is GAP certified.

“We think it’s a big deal, and we’re organizing our system so that our product codes reflect that in the coming weeks and months.”

Bruce Dowhan, vice president and general manager of Escondido, Calif.-based Giumarra Agricom LLC, said his firm has seen similar trends.

“In the past, the GMPs were the priority and the main focus for avocado handlers,” he said. “In recent years, it’s become evident that the GAP program is becoming very important at the retail level, and retailers are beginning to request that avocados come from GAP-certified ranches.”

For the past five years, he said, Giumarra Agricom has encouraged its growers to become certified.

Index Fresh, which markets under the AvoTerra label, views GAP certification as extremely important, said Dana Thomas, president of the Bloomington, Calif.-based grower-packer.

Its packinghouse has been certified for several years, but Thomas said Index Fresh about three years ago began to encourage its growers to become GAP-certified.

“It’s really a big initiative for Index Fresh,” he said.

Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, has made GAPs a top priority and has developed an in-house program to help get all the fruit it packs certified,” said Dave Fausset, sales and category manager.

California Avocado Commision offers rebate “We’re a big proponent of it, especially when you look at places like Europe and Japan — they’re demanding not only GAPs but GlobalGAPs,” he said. “GAPs are just the minimum. I think GlobalGAPs will be the future way.”

GAP education

The commission, with input from experts, drafted a commodity-specific GAP manual in 2011 that addressed practices specific to avocados, Melban said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the final version.

“We got buy-ins from all of the handlers,” he said. “They liked the idea of one uniform manual.”

Many already close

Scott Bauwens, director of sourcing for Murrieta, Calif.-based West Pak Avocado Inc., was chairman of the commission’s committee that helped draft the GAP manual.

What he and others have observed is that many growers don’t have to make a big leap to become GAP certified.

“What growers are finding is they’re already doing 95% to 99% of the practices already required for GAP certification,” Bauwens said.

What may be missing in many cases is documenting those practices, he said.

Funding from a Specialty Crop Block Grant helped the commission develop GAP educational materials and workshops specifically designed for growers and harvest crews. All of the materials and workshops are in English and Spanish.

More than 500 growers and harvest crew leaders attended workshops held in 2012 throughout the Southern California avocado growing regions, exceeding expectations, Melban said.

As of the end of 2012, about 20% of ranches had been GAP certified, he said. And the commission is striving for more than 50% certification by the end of this year.