DAVIS, Calif. — Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a small-farm advocacy group based here, has said it opposes the proposed federal marketing agreement for leafy greens, a national food safety program modeled after the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Although many growers have publicly expressed support for the plan, CAFF argues that if the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes the agreement mandatory — by imposing a marketing order — small farms and local growers could be bankrupted by expensive mandates that are really designed for large, national operations.
“We don't think the federal marketing agreement is a good model for food safety,” Kira Pascoe, CAFF's family farm food safety coordinator, said.
“If it does go through, we really hope that they change the scope, so that it really focuses on fresh-cut. Because otherwise, we're going to just threaten a lot of diverse leafy green [growers], and we're going to limit [consumer] access to diverse leafy greens nationwide. We want to change the scope because we believe this is a problem with industrially processed fresh-cut leafy greens.”
The USDA began considering the program earlier this year in response to the September 2006 E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated bagged spinach. Options being considered during the USDA's public comment period, which began on Oct. 4, include a marketing agreement — which would prescribe official handling guidelines for growers, processors and other handlers of leafy greens, and would allow those parties to sign on to the agreement voluntarily — or a marketing order that would be implemented following a grower referendum, requiring mandatory compliance for all handlers.
CAFF is more opposed to a marketing order, which would be mandatory nationwide, Pascoe said.
“We're definitely against an order,” Pascoe told SN. “With the agreement, we hope that they look at the rules and think very wisely about what they're going to do. There are a lot of food safety models that are a lot more friendly to family diversified farms and to traditional leafy greens that could be used [and] would probably be applicable to all products in produce.”
Agency officials have stated that the USDA is not predisposed toward either option at this time. A release issued by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service early in the comment period said “USDA believes that a marketing agreement is most likely to meet the needs of the national industry. In the program under consideration, packers, processors, shippers and marketers, as signatories under a marketing agreement of leafy greens, could be required to certify — and for USDA to verify — that their products are produced and handled according to best practices specified.”
Pascoe said that even if the program does not become mandatory, there could be repercussions for small growers from a marketing standpoint if the voluntary agreement were to be implemented.
“You also have to look at what it does for marketing nationwide as well, because if [retailers or shoppers] require the seal anyway, then, by default, they may only buy from those that are a part of this agreement,” Pascoe said. “There's a lot of indirect or default impact that could potentially hurt farmers.”
She continued: “We are not saying there should not be any guidelines or rules, but what we would like to have are rules that actually take into consideration diversified farming practices and also take into consideration where the high risk is,” Pascoe added.
“Right now, the highest risk, at least in California, has been with the bagged fresh-cut processed leafy greens, so we say that there needs to be focus on the high risk. There are definitely unique food safety risks in the fresh-cut greens.”
The USDA will close its public comment period on the issue on Monday, Dec. 3. If response from retailers, growers, consumers and other interested parties is favorable, the agency has said it will continue working with the industry to develop the guidelines.