The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) series of hearings on the proposed marketing agreement for leafy green vegetables is drawing to an end this week.

The proposed marketing agreement, formally known as the National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (NLGMA), has met resistance from many farmers, especially small scale producers.

According to the USDA, “A cross-section of producers and handlers from the fresh-produce industry proposed the establishment of a marketing agreement to facilitate the practical application of Good Agricultural Practices, Good Handling Practices, and Good Manufacturing Practices guidelines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

The proposed rule would operate much like the California Leafy Greens Marketing agreement, which the industry formulated after the catastrophic E. coli outbreak in 2006 that was traced to California-grown spinach.

“If established, only handlers who sign on to the marketing agreement would be subject to requirements of the accord,” said the USDA, but some in the leafy green industry fear that pressure to sign on will create a de facto mandatory agreement that will be “one-size-fits-all” and potentially damaging to smaller producers.

Some also worry that a voluntary agreement is not the right vehicle instrument for improving leafy green safety.

“Adopting processes that minimize the risk of pathogenic contamination should not be voluntary. In addition, a marketing agreement that takes a crop-by-crop approach to food safety is both inefficient as well as impractical,” said Carol Goland, Ph.D.. executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, at a hearing in Columbus.

While a variety of producers within the industry are concerned about the details of the NLGMA, there is also widespread concern about inaction, especially as the industry has still not fully recovered from the outbreak in 2006.

“Historically, without uniform safety requirements, we are dependent on the safety practices of all other growers and shippers in the county, state, and beyond. Outbreaks such as the E. coli outbreak in September 2006 affect the entire industry and we destroyed crops and experienced financial losses when consumers lost confidence in our industry to put forward the safest products possible”  said Amy Kunugi, general manager at Southern Colorado Farms, Nature Fresh Organics, and SemTec LLC at a hearing in Denver.

“This is a huge leap forward for product safety. With national standards in place, industry buyers can now see the issues on food safety much more clearly and thus address these issues with a consistent and cost-effective direction or plan,” added Kunugi.

So far the USDA has hosted public hearings in Monterey Jacksonville, Columbus, Denver, Yuma, and yesterday the agency held a hearing in Syracuse, New York.

The final hearing will be in Charlotte, North Carolina this Thursday, October 22nd.