The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Crop Improvement Association and the Georgia Department of Agriculture are all active and effective in helping growers, wholesalers and retailers merchandise the state’s abundant harvest. A big component of these stakeholders’ efforts is helping farmers earn a reputation for food safety.
The Fruit and Vegetable Association has full-time food safety staff offering advice, training and regulatory guidance to growers, packers, shippers and processors.
“We work with farmers both in groups as well as on farms with one-on-one food safety education and training,” says Beth Bland Oleson, director of education and food safety at the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, La Grange, GA. “We have a membership program, called the Produce Food Safety Services, that provides a full range of customized food safety consulting and education, tailored to produce operations.
While the state has a long and storied history of being one of the largest fresh produce producing states on the East Coast, the creation of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association in the mid-90s by a group of vegetable, peach and blueberry growers bore witness to Georgia’s rising importance as a source of the nation’s produce.
“The Produce Food Safety Services was developed out of a request from our members back in the late 90’s,” Oleson says. “Food safety programs and audits were an unknown element on farms and packing facilities. We were able to work with several other state organizations to create the Georgia Good Agricultural Practices Program. We acted as the administrative and consulting arm. The Georgia Department of Agriculture provided regulatory weight by conducting pesticide inspections and residue testing. The University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Departments of Food Science and Horticulture provided subject matter expertise, and the Georgia Crop Improvement Association conducted audits.”
The Georgia Crop Improvement Association also offers an agricultural practices program that provides inspection and auditing services to certify that growers and packers follow environmentally safe practices and provide worker protection in growing, harvesting and packing.
Many of the state’s farmers walk the extra mile to ensure that their operations are environmentally sensitive and that their produce is safe to eat.
Bland Farms, for example, enlists the services of Emeryville, CA-based Scientific Certification Systems, which has provided global leadership in third-party environmental and sustainability certifications, auditing, testing and standards development for more than 25 years.
Wholesaler Nickey Gregory, serving the Southeast and beyond from its base in the Forest Park wholesale market, is food-safety certified by Santa Maria, CA-based Primus Labs.
In addition to the extensive merchandising help at retail and foodservice from the Georgia Grown program, the Georgia Department of Agriculture also offers an extensive effort at food safety information and outreach in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The promotion campaigns work hand in hand with efforts to constantly improve and document food safety in agriculture.
“We and the Georgia Department of Agriculture are friends, but we are separate organizations,” says Oleson. “We work with them to host many of the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings that help growers achieve the required food safety certification in the Produce Safety Rule.”
Produce Fit for a Chef
Restrictions on social gathering enacted in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus put on hold the state’s produce farmers’ important markets with Georgia restaurants, but this deep relationship figures to return with more normal times.
“The minute it is safe to go, we will come roaring back,” says Karen Bremer, CEO of the Atlanta-based Georgia Restaurant Association. “Our restaurant industry is the second largest private employer in the state after agriculture. We do $25 billion a year in revenue with 500,000 workers at 19,000 restaurants.”
Photos courtesy of Georgia Peach Council
Nine years ago, Bremer teamed with Commissioner Black to found the Georgia Grown Executive Chef program to foster relationships between chefs and farmers.
“We work on many issues together; we walk together,” Bremer says. “Back in 2015, for the first time, more produce was sold in our restaurants than in the markets. You can see how jammed the markets are now, and those people don’t all want to have to cook at home.”
Georgia wholesalers and shippers notice the increased interest in local produce among their foodservice customers.
“Chefs are asking for more locally grown products and are featuring them on menus,” says Andrew Scott from Nickey Gregory. “We sell to many foodservice companies and broadliners across the Southeast. We have seen the Georgia Grown logo on menus. We have seen Subway restaurants run billboards showing locally grown bell peppers from Georgia.”
While nearly 50 produce retailers in the state are Georgia Grown members and display the logo letting customers know of their support of local farms, many restaurants also feature locally-grown produce.
Bistro Off Broad in Winder, GA, and Gilliard Farms in Brunswick GA, are Georgia Grown member farm-to-table restaurants, and countless dining establishments proudly feature locally grown produce, including four food truck operators who paid their membership.
“During peak season, you’ll find Georgia peaches on the menu in restaurants up and down the East Coast,” says Will McGehee of the Georgia Peach Council. “You’ll see them in salads, grilled peaches as a side to pork chops and peach cobbler at the end of the meal.”