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WASHINGTON -- Two years after launching new standards in California for growing and handling leafy greens, a coalition of produce groups has petitioned the federal government to establish a national marketing agreement for leafy greens.

In a June 9 petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the groups asked the federal government to set up a national marketing agreement based on best practices and a verification program designed to reduce the potential for another crippling outbreak like the 2006 E. Coli episode associated with fresh spinach.

The 16-page draft document spells out a process for leafy greens to be grown and handled to meet science-based standards that are audited by government officials. The draft agreement is posted for comments at www.nlgma.org.

"The 'proposed agreement' guarantees all parties -- growers, packers, handlers, manufactures and end-users -- are at the table as we move forward to ensure the food safety of leafy greens for the consumer," Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said in a press release.

The United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Georgia Fresh Vegetable Association, Georgia Farm Bureau, Texas Vegetable Association, Arizona Farm Bureau, Leafy Greens Council, California Farm Bureau, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Western Growers Association have been in discussions with leafy greens growers, handlers, other trade associations and stakeholders throughout the country in developing a draft leafy greens marketing agreement, said the groups.

The petition is no surprise to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would administer the new program. For months, the groups have been working on language with federal partners, and the department asked Congress earlier this year for $2.3 million to write a federal marketing agreement for cabbage, lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens.

The USDA said that the federal agreement -- split into five geographical regions -- could generate the work of five marketing agreements, take two years to implement, and require regional meetings and four to 20 "complex rulemaking actions."

The department's Agricultural Marketing Service would need the funding increase to recruit auditors, bring enforcement actions, track inspection certificates, and conduct outreach to the industry and consumers, said USDA's fiscal 2010 spending proposal.

"A national marketing agreement would bring some much-needed clarity and consistency to the myriad, often conflicting and occasionally confounding food-safety requirements now being imposed on leafy greens producers," said Robert Whitaker, PMA's chief science officer.

California and Arizona are running statewide leafy green marketing agreements, in which industry pays fees to state departments of agriculture, which in turn verify that the companies are meeting the best practices. The two agreements account for about 90 percent of the nation's leafy greens production.

"We are talking about the remaining 10 percent" being covered in the federal marketing agreement, said Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications for WGA.

But not everyone is on board.

At least one consumer advocate believes that USDA should not be enforcing food safety through marketing agreements, and said that AMS has repeatedly testified on Capitol Hill that it is not a food-safety agency.

"I understand the industry is attempting to do something in the absence of federal regulation," Tony Corbo, food lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, told The Produce News. "FDA has been AWOL on its responsibilities." But now Congress may pass legislation that would give FDA clear authority to regulate produce on the farm, he added.

Food-safety legislation, depending on the final language that Congress passes, may recognize the leafy greens marketing agreement as acceptable food-safety regulation, said Ms. Fink-Weber. California already has a two- year proven track record in administering this program, she said.

"This is not just a theoretical model," she added.