Natural Foods Merchandiser

National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Hearings Yield Arguments

Fall hearings on a proposed national leafy greens marketing agreement so far are harvesting bushels of arguments about whether the voluntary program is the right way to ensure the safety of lettuce, spinach, some herbs and cabbage.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service is holding the hearings, which began in September and are scheduled to run through Oct. 22, across the country to give the public an opportunity to comment on the proposal. The agreement would be a national extension of a program created in 2007 by the leafy greens industry and adopted by California and Arizona in response to a 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach that sickened hundreds nationwide.

The proposal spells out voluntary science-based best-practices guidelines for leafy greens handlers, such as shippers and processors, that call for the development of production and handling regulations including water quality and tissue testing for pathogens, auditing and record-keeping. Those who sign the agreement could only handle leafy green vegetables from areas and growers that meet the requirements of the program.

In testimony at hearings in California, Florida, Ohio and Colorado, supporters such as United Fresh Produce Association and local farm and growers organizations have clashed with critics such as the National Organic Coalition, Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety as well as local farmers over key provisions in the agreement.

Supporters say the proposal would “provide a clear and logical framework for signatory handlers to improve the quality of U.S. and imported leafy green products,” according to a proponent group. They say a national agreement would allow for regional differences and still provide assurances for customers anywhere in the U.S.

Opponents argue that while large-scale operations could easily meet the regulations, the rules would put an undue and costly burden on organic and small and medium farmers, particularly those in certain parts of the country. Opponents also say food safety is not a marketing issue and should be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in coordination with the USDA.

“To require mid-size and organic farms to follow the same rules as the large-scale operations that have been responsible for past widespread contamination is discriminatory, and would endanger a vibrant and thriving sector of our economy, the local, organic or sustainable family farm,” said Bu Nygrens, co-owner of San Francisco-based regional produce distributor Veritable Vegetable, in testimony at a hearing in Monterrey, Calif., that drew dozens of proponents and opponents and prompted the hearings to continue for a third day. Nygrens urged the panel to take sustainable conservation practices into account.

L.G. “Bo” Herndon, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and a producer/packer/shipper of 500 acres of leafy greens in Georgia, testified at the Florida hearing that the agreement could reduce the number of audits he undergoes – a major area of contention among the handlers -- and “potentially save my operation and other farm operations money and time.”

Patty Lovera, assistant director for the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Food & Water Watch, testified in Monterrey that the agreement excludes consumer voices on the committee that would oversee the agreement and that its scope leaves many voids.

But J Allen Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce and vice president of Carnes Farms in Texas, said in Denver that he sees the proposal as a “first step to a national food safety policy. Outbreaks affect everyone, from large to small (operations). It stops the flow of commerce all over the country, not just one area or one grower. It affects retailers.

“A national agreement is necessary to level the playing field. Food safety…is only as good as our weakest link, be that our neighbor or someone across the country.”

Additional hearings are scheduled in October in Arizona, New York and North Carolina.

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