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Federal leafy greens marketing agreement debated at food safety meeting

by Joan Murphy | April 06, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The California Leafy Green Product Handler Marketing Agreement is being exported to other states and other commodities, but it should be adopted nationally and set as a standard for importers to follow, Scott Horsfall, the marketing agreement's chief executive director, said at an April 7 meeting on food safety.

Mr. Horsfall told The Produce News that the industry hopes to have a draft federal marketing agreement available this summer to start the lengthy process of establishing food-safety standards for leafy greens grown throughout the country.

The California leafy greens industry pushed for the mandatory auditing program in the wake of the E. coli outbreak in 2006 that was tied to California growers and that decimated the spinach industry. Two years later, 115 companies have joined the marketing agreement, and authorities have conducted 1,000 food safety audits in a successfully brokered industry- government partnership, according to Mr. Horsfall. Arizona and Florida have adopted similar food safety standards, and other commodities, including mushrooms and tomatoes, have established their own safe handling standards.

But Carole Tucker Foreman, a lobbyist with the Consumers Federation of America, argued at the Farm Foundation Forum-sponsored meeting that the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees federal marketing agreements, is not chartered with a public health mission.

"If it's a public concern, then [the U.S. Food & Drug Administration] needs to have the authority and resources and set national standards for produce," she said. AMS runs on a marketing mandate. "Sometimes what's good for [the] market is good for public health, but that's not always true," she added.

Mr. Horsfall said that state agriculture agencies, which are well versed in agriculture and trained by AMS, are ideal for inspecting packinghouses and farms.

While the program is voluntary to join, companies become subject to mandatory audits and newly added requirements, such as unannounced visits, he said. Industry must correct minor deficiencies uncovered by audits, and a company with serious violations is decertified, a step that would have a significant impact on a company and automatically bar a supplier from selling in Canada, said Mr. Horsfall. At this time, no company has been listed as decertified on the group's web site.

In response to a question about whether leafy green growers are destroying wildlife habitat to comply with the industry-led program, he replied that the program requires buffer zones but does not mandate stripping vegetative growth, and that the metrics continue to evolve to respond to issues like the environment.

On the issue of cost, Mr. Horsfall hoped that the California marketing agreement would eventually eliminate the need for duplicative third-party audits required by leafy green buyers.

"We want LGMA to satisfy the standard, but we have a long way to go on that," he concluded.