About one-third of California’s avocado acreage has been certified to be in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture good agricultural practices, thanks to a little help from the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission.

Now in its third year, the commission’s rebate program offers growers up to $300 toward the cost of GAP certification.

Growers received $100,000 worth of rebates during the first two years of the program, said Ken Melban, the commission’s director of issues management.

So far, the rebate only has been good for first-time audits. But starting May 1, growers may apply for a rebate for recertification, as well.

Producers have signed up for the program voluntarily, Melban said.

“That speaks volume about the commitment of our growers.”

Stricter requirements

It may not be long before food safety requirements become even more stringent, with retailers requiring good agricultural practices, said Dave Fausset, national sales manager for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif.

Some retailers already request GlobalG.A.P.-certified pro-duct, he said. And he said that within three to five years, that could be the industry standard.

“We’ve been really pushing (growers) to at least become GAP-certified,” Fausset said.

The biggest challenge is for small growers, some of whom grow avocados as a side job, he said. For them, the cost of certification becomes a bigger deal.

Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington, Calif., is upgrading its packinghouse to comply with a Primus Global Food Safety Initiative audit, said Dana Thomas, president.

“(Food safety) is of utmost importance,” he said.

The company also has a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program in place and has been working with its growers for more than five years on a GAP certification program.

Almost half of the company’s volume now is GAP certified, Thomas said.

“We want to continue to add on to that every year,” he said.

More than 75% of the volume from Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., is GAP certified, said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing. Growers get recertified annually.

“We’re proud of our growers, who have stepped up and been leaders in getting their groves certified,” he said.
“They believe GAP is the long-term key to a good, sustainable profit flow from retailers.”

At Giumarra, “Food safety has become an increasingly important part of what we do,” said Bruce Dowhan, vice president of Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos. and general manager of Giumarra Agricom International LLC, Escondido, Calif.

That includes every aspect of the company’s operation, from harvest to pack to distribution, he said.

“We want to be able to guarantee and certify to our customers that the product they are getting is safe,” Dowhan said.

Food safety certification is expensive, said Phil Henry, president of Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido.

Nonetheless, “We have to comply with the standards of retailers and foodservice distributors,” he said.

Complying with food safety standards is difficult whether a grower produces organic or conventional product, said Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer at Eco-Farms Corp., Temecula, Calif.

It’s not impossible, though.

“It just takes more of people’s time to make sure we have everything set,” he said.

Retail mandated

Melban thinks the demand for GAP certification only will increase with time.

“There’s been for a few years, increasing chatter from the retail community and the foodservice community in terms of requiring GAP certification,” he said.

Some already have drawn a line and set a date when they only will accept GAP-certified fruit, he said.

Index Fresh has hired a food safety coordinator Nnaemeka Ike, who is dedicated to food safety and who works with growers to help them get GAP audited, Thomas said.

“The vast majority of customers ask us about our food safety programs,” he said.
Safety standards have evolved significantly over the years.

“What we’re doing today is entirely different from what we were doing 20 years ago,” Thomas said.