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What's a Food Safety Plan and why would I need one?

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, food safety

Good agricultural practices, or GAPs, are practical steps that farmers take to protect their fresh fruits and vegetables from harmful bacteria and viral pathogens that can make people sick. Many fresh fruit and vegetables are consumed raw, meaning there is not a processing step to kill any potentially harmful microbes that might be present. Therefore, preventing contamination in the first place is the goal. A food safety plan is your farm's roadmap to help prevent microbial contamination of your fresh produce.

Who needs a food safety plan?

At this time most Minnesota growers are not required to have a farm food safety plan unless they have a GAP audit on their product, or unless their customer – typically a distributor, grocery store, school or restaurant – requires it. If you need to have a GAP audit, the first thing you need is a written food safety plan. If you are interested in learning more about the process for getting a GAP audit, please see this blog post "What it takes to get a GAP audit for your produce".

However all producers of fresh fruit and vegetables, from community gardens to large scale commercial operations can benefit from having a documented plan to guide their actions around food safety.  A food safety plan is not required by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, but is strongly encouraged to stay organized and to facilitate employee training. 

Why would I write a food safety plan?

1. Marketing

Even if you are direct marketing your produce and won't be getting a GAP audit, having a food safety plan and following good hygiene and sanitation practices can benefit your operation. It will assure your customers that you are proactively reducing the risk of microbial contamination on your produce.  Customers like schools, day cares, or health care institutions will like to see a food safety plan. Their customers might be young, old, or immune compromised, and having your farm's plan for food safety presented to them will go a long way in reducing potential concerns and conveys professionalism and that you take the safety of your customers seriously. 

2. Save you time by identifying and prioritizing risks on the farm

A food safety plan organizes your actions to reduce risks on your farm related to food safety. In it, you will think through and describe the risks that might be present, and how actions to address those risks. For example, in the section on animals, you can describe how you have domesticated animals like cats and dogs on the farm, but that you do not allow them in the growing area. 

In the section on water, you can state that you use well water for irrigation and postharvest use on your farm, and that you test it annually for the presence of generic E. coli. You can keep the test records with your plan, for easy reference. In the section on manure and compost, you can say how you store manure on your farm safely away from your produce, and that you apply it into the soil in the fall to reduce the chances that it might contaminate fresh produce. The plan template (at the end of this document) provides you the key topics to cover, so you can identify the most important things to focus on. These activities will be the biggest "bang for your buck" for food safety.

3. Employee training 

Perhaps most importantly, it defines your policies, and therefore becomes a training document. For example, your farm might have some of the following policies: 

  • Workers don't come to work when they are sick with any symptoms of illness like vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, or coughing. 
  • Workers must wash hands before harvesting, washing or handling fresh fruits and vegetables, and after using the restroom, after taking breaks, and after handling animals or manure.
  • Workers must take breaks on the side of the field, and not eat in the field. 
  • All food contact surfaces like sorting tables, harvest knives and tools are cleaned and sanitized at the end of each day and put away in a specific spot. 
The above bullets are policies are written in your food safety plan, which then becomes the document that you can use for your employee training. You should train all employees who will work with produce about your food safety policies upon hiring, and then refresh this information as needed. Update your plan each year to match your policies. 

Other tips

  • Only include practices you are doing on YOUR farm
  • Do NOT include things you wish you were doing
  • Does not need to be long or complicated
  • Pick practices and schedules you know you can do
  • Focus on risk reduction! The plan will help you identify the most important things to do to reduce risk, since your time is valuable 

How do I get started?

The plan does not need to be long or complex! Most are about 10 pages. Get started by using the food safety plan template we have developed  and adapt it for your farm. The material provided here is guidance and not regulation and should be applied as appropriate and feasible to your fruit and vegetable operations.

If you are getting a GAP audit and need a food safety plan, or just want to develop one to guide your food safety practices and employee training, I can review your plan for completeness and make suggestions. Email questions to Annalisa at

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