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Congressional panel probes California leafy greens agreement

by Joan Murphy | July 29, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement got an airing on Capitol Hill July 29, and the publicity was not all good.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Subcommittee, held an afternoon hearing to air his concerns with the 2007 marketing agreement as the U.S Department of Agriculture considers whether to implement it nationwide.

The California program is largely silent on "upstream processing and distribution" of ready-to-eat produce but has a lot to say about farming practices and land stewardship, said Rep. Kucinich.

The congressman took issue with the metrics that appear to conflict with environmental protections, criticized the program for condoning coring in the field, and said that the program was not tough enough in limiting the "Best Consumed By Date" stamped on ready-to-eat packaging.

He asked federal officials if the leafy greens industry was safer than before the 2007 marketing agreement was put into place.

Improving producer practices makes a contribution to safety, said Mike Taylor, the newly hired senior advisor to Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. But after some grilling, Mr. Taylor acknowledged that California had not solved the problem of food safety. Mr. Taylor said that the FDA planned to incorporate its yet-to-be-written federal produce safety standards into the federal marketing agreement to encourage widespread compliance.

Public hearings are being planned for September and October on the industry's June 8 proposal for a national marketing agreement for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, said another new hire, Rayne Pegg, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service.

"We are aware that there are concerns from various groups on this proposed marketing agreement, and a process is in place to hear all points of view," she said. "We want a robust comment period to allow us to make the best possible decision."

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, defended the program for boosting confidence in food safety after the 2006 E. coli outbreak was tied to California spinach. He refuted claims that processors are given preferential treatment, saying that they are already regulated by the FDA.

But farmer Dale Coke, who spoke for the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, complained that California farmers spend an average of $18,000 a year on laboratory testing for water, soil and other new food-safety requirements.

"Leafy greens farmers are now in the unenviable position of paying for and complying with a roster of unproven food-safety metrics in an attempt to try to grow pathogen-free crops in farm fields," he said.

Greens harvested as whole heads do not pose the same risk as pre-cut salad greens, yet they are lumped into the same food-safety metrics, said Mr. Coke.

Consumer advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal urged Congress to beat back attempts by industry to use food-safety marketing orders. A critic of AMS- run food-safety programs, the Center for Science in the Public Interest food safety director said that AMS is not equipped to monitor the safety of fresh produce.

Also at the hearing, Kelly Cobb, a stay-at-home mom with two young children, recounted her ordeal after becoming infected with E. coli in May 2008 after eating a contaminated salad in Washington state.