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Can Marketing Orders Improve Leafy Greens Safety?

In revising a plan that had been criticized by consumer groups and others, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a program to establish a voluntary, national marketing agreement to set safety standards and regulate the handling of leafy green vegetables.

 

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) released an outline Tuesday of the program, called the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA), which it said would reduce the potential for contamination of lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other leafy greens.

If accepted by the Secretary of Agriculture, the agreement would allow member producers to obtain a USDA seal of approval certifying that their products are in compliance with food safety requirements.

The NLGMA is intended to restore consumer confidence in leafy greens, which suffered a blow in 2006 when more than 200 people were sickened, and five died, in an outbreak E. coli infections traced to spinach grown in California.

After leafy green producers in California and Arizona created their own statewide marketing agreements in 2007, industry members began to call for a national set of voluntary leafy green regulations. In June of 2009, 12 industry organizations issued an initial proposal for such an agreement.

Since that time, the effort to create an industry-driven food safety plan has come under fire by critics who claim it would allow producers to police themselves.  The critics also said the plan would it be prohibitive to small farms and favor large producers, and cause harm to the environment by introducing more chemicals and using more natural resources.

Consumers Union, for example, called federal marketing agreements an inappropriate way to ensure the safety of leafy greens.  The organization said that should be the responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that the FDA should do its job more vigorously.

This latest version of the NLGMA includes several changes designed to address some of the concerns, many of which were expressed during a series of public hearings held by AMS. The revisions, according to federal regulators, provide greater representation for small and organic farms and more attention to conservation.

Some of the most significant changes to the agreement include:

— Expanding the number of administrative zones from 5 to 8, in order to take into account the differences in climate, production practices and handling practices between the countries various regions.

— Naming 26 board members to oversee implementation of the NLGMA, up from the original 23. Two of these members must be small farmers.

— Creating a Technical Review Committee to ensure that the board’s requirements align with FDA food safety requirements, Good Agricultral Practices (GAPs), Good Handling Practices (GHPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). At least one committee member must be a small farmer, and one must be a certified organic farmer.

— Representation by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which will furnish a committee member.

“Board representation was very critical based on the comments we received,” said Rayne Pegg, AMS administrator, in a news conference. “People really wanted to ensure that there was grower representation, that there was representation of different sized operations so they would have a voice in the discussions.” 

As for those worried about the environment, she said, “There were a lot of concerns over co-management with food safety practices and conservation practices, so the proposal includes the NRCS having a seat on the Technical Review Committee.”

Some have already voiced their disapproval of the revised proposal.

” … the USDA is now allowing the industry that brought us E. coli-tainted spinach to police itself,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a statement.

“Developing food safety standards in a marketing process is inappropriate and could leave consumers and small, organic and independent producers out of the process. It also adds confusion and potential overlap to the ongoing process of implementing the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority for developing produce standards,” she said.

Supporters of the initiative, however, say California’s experience has already demonstrated that a marketing agreement can promote food safety. Spending on food safety more than doubled in 2008 and 2009 among growers who signed the agreement, advocates note, and 99 percent of California’s leafy greens were under LGMA’s auditing program by November of 2009.

Friday marks the beginning of a 90-day public comment period on the proposal. After that closes, the Secretary of Agriculture will determine whether or not to approve the agreement.

Food Safety News will provide a link to the Federal Register’s commentary site when it becomes available on Friday.

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