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Webinar spurs dialogue about federal leafy greens agreement

by Joan Murphy | August 19, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Businesses that handle leafy greens got a better picture of the proposed federal marketing agreement during an Aug. 19 webinar that trade groups hope gets the green light by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In June, a coalition of produce trade groups asked USDA for a marketing agreement that would cover a wide range of leafy greens in hopes of putting industry "in the driver's seat" on how to farm safe products, Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said during the hour-long event.

Handlers who sign onto the marketing agreement will get assurances of a comprehensive evaluation, metrics based on sound science and consumer confidence that leafy greens are safe, he said.

Without it, retailers, foodservice companies and states will dictate different standards, stated Mr. Hall, who moderated the webinar. "We believe there is likelihood that the multitude of audits can be reduced" with a federal marketing agreement, he added.

The Arizona Farm Bureau, California Farm Bureau, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Leafy Greens Council, Produce Marketing Association, Texas Vegetable Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers Association -- all supporters of a federal agreement -- sponsored the free webinar to explain the new proposal.

The number of audits required under a federal marketing agreement and concern about complying with so-called super metrics were some of the issues raised about a new federal marketing agreement on leafy greens during the webinar.

WGA is envisioning a USDA audit at least during every production season, along with an audit conducted on a random basis, to verify compliance, said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology, for the Irvine, CA- based association, which represents growers in California and Arizona.

In response to a question about metrics, Mr. Giclas said that the intent of a federal marketing agreement is to establish a baseline standard that would reduce the need for so-called super metrics. He said that developing the metrics would be an "open, transparent process" by a technical committee, which would set standards that would work for small and large business alike and ones situated in different geographic regions across the country.

If a federal marketing agreement passes, it appears unclear what would happen to companies that now abide by the California and Arizona marketing agreements.

"We want to make sure there's no doubling up on handlers and producers," Mr. Giclas said. The draft marketing agreement allows collaboration with states. "Ultimately, the intent is to get to a singular program that works for everyone."

The federal marketing agreement also would not interfere with the produce industry's own traceability initiative, explained Robert Guenther, senior vice president for United Fresh Produce Association, who said that produce companies are lobbying Congress to include language in the food-safety bills that allows the Food & Drug Administration to recognize equivalent practices, such as the marketing agreement, to meet food-safety standards.

But USDA has yet to announce public meetings on the proposed marketing agreement - the next step in the nearly two-year process to establish a federal marketing agreement, said Melissa Schmaedick, USDA's senior marketing assistant.

The department is now determining whether to hold a hearing, she added.