So much has happened on the food safety front since the E.coli-contaminated spinach crisis of 10 years ago, that the U.S. case history is just that – ancient history. Fast forward to 2016 and consider that spinach grower Jim Sheehan has just won a Leadership in Innovation award for his GAP App. He’s converted the hard-copy CanadaGAP food safety manuals into a mobile-friendly app that can record routine events in real-time.
Growing spinach hydroponically at Durham Foods, Port Perry, Ontario is unusual enough, but Sheehan has de-risked contamination throughout the seed-to-harvest process. Their well water is tested before it comes in contact with spinach seeds and a mechanical harvester has been developed so that no human hands touch the produce. From planting large spinach seeds into rafts that float on nutrient-rich water, Sheehan can monitor plant health over the 18 days until harvest. From several 900 square-foot pools, he can reap 500 pounds of spinach.
Spinach is highly perishable and as a leafy green, needs plenty of safety oversight. Growing spinach in soil has its own hazards, but water also presents its own hurdles.
No templates exist in growing spinach hydroponically, so Jim and his wife Shelley have innovated from the ground up. That started with an OMAFRA course in food safety and
traceability initiatives in 2011. Since then, they credit working relationships with a number of funding agencies such as NSERC, Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE), CONII, NRC-BIAP, Niagara College, Durham College, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and the constant support and guidance from the team at CanadaGAP to achieve the program’s translation to an electronic format.
When the Sheehan’s wanted to join CanadaGAP in 2012, there was no category for hydroponic spinach. So they engaged researchers at Niagara College to review the CanadaGAP manuals and identify specific growing steps that were not included. These physical tasks have been added to the roster of safety steps.
“We created an electronic format of the CanadaGAP forms,” says Sheehan “so that we got paperwork out of the greenhouse and made food safety part of the everyday work flow.”
Instead of documenting an incident at the end of the work day in an office removed from the growing area, the incident is recorded on a mobile phone or tablet. A photo can be taken and added to the record along with how the problem was resolved.
If an employee finds a broken lamp in the greenhouse, for example, the worker notes it immediately on the smartphone. The event is recorded automatically into spreadsheets that an auditor can see once on the premises. There is no paper trail, just an electronic trail.
“The really great thing is that everything relates back to the auditor’s forms,” says Sheehan. “We don’t deal with a huge paper beast every day, but rather a more engaging format.”
Record-keeping costs time and money. Sheehan claims savings on both inputting data and retrieving data. Auditing time is reduced. In fact, the auditor can review the electronic records in advance of the farm visit and specify the few things which are to be the focus.
The mechanics of the GAP App work smoothly for Durham Foods. The next step is to have the University of Ontario Institute of Technology researchers test for adaptability to other commodities. GAP App is a piece of intellectual property that may save tens of thousands of dollars for the horticulture industry. That commercial venture is underway at the start of 2016.
When Durham Foods won one of Ontario’s Agri-Innovation Food Awards in late fall, it came with a $25,000 cheque.
“The money is nice,” says Sheehan, “but what’s more important for us is the positive feedback from our peers. That means a lot.”
We created an electronic format of the CanadaGAP forms so that we got paperwork out of the greenhouse and made food safety part of the everyday work flow.
~ Jim Sheehan
Photo C CUTLINE: (L-R): Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Shelley and Jim Sheehan, Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal.