By Jane Hoback
That salad you’re eating might be healthy, but how do you make sure it’s safe? That’s the subject of public hearings held across the country on a controversial proposal for a national marketing agreement that sets guidelines for handlers of leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce, some herbs and cabbage to ensure the safety of the produce. As proposed, the agreement, which is a response to a 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach that sickened hundreds nationwide, spells out voluntary science-based best-practices guidelines for leafy greens handlers, such as shippers and processors. It would 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.
Supporters, including the United Fresh Produce Association and the Leafy Greens Council as well as individual farmers have testified that those who sign the agreement would help improve the quality of U.S. and imported leafy green products” If an outbreak were to occur, requirements for tracing the produce would be able to pinpoint the area where the outbreak originated more quickly, according to proponents. 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.”
On the other side are groups such as the Center for Food Safety and the National Organic Coalition, who argue that some organic and small farmers can’t afford to meet all the requirements even though they already follow safe handling procedures; this would make it tougher to get their produce to consumers. Critics say that while the agreement is voluntary, small farmers who don’t sign it might not be able to do business with large retail chains who could demand that the growers participate. “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. Nygrens urged the panel to take sustainable conservation practices into account. Critics also worry that consumers will view produce from handlers who don’t sign the agreement as less safe are are concerned that a committee to oversee the agreement doesn’t include consumer representatives.
The USDA will consider testimony from the hearings to draft a revised proposal for further public comment.