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Retailer questions need for national leafy greens marketing agreement

by Joan Murphy | August 11, 2011

With the passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, is there still a need for a national leafy greens marketing agreement?

One retailer, Whole Foods Market, is telling the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it is time to withdraw the proposal because it is redundant, will not make leafy greens safer and makes little sense to adopt a voluntary industry program when the Food & Drug Administration is writing mandatory regulations under the FSMA.

After the 2006 E. coli outbreak that crippled the spinach industry, the produce industry organized leafy green marketing agreements in California and Arizona to restore the industry’s credibility and reassure buyers.

In 2009, 14 produce groups asked the Agricultural Marketing Service to adopt a federal marketing agreement that would cover leafy greens across the nation as well as imports.

But James Parker, facility team leader for Whole Foods, said in a July 28 letter that not only does AMS lack expertise in food safety, the latest marketing agreement has numerous flaws.

The agreement imposes standards on growers, but they are not signatories, and the only way to enforce it is to remove companies from the agreement, in which case they would be free to do what they choose, Mr. Parker said.

The Technical Review Committee charged with developing the audit metrics will be made up of two-thirds industry members and one-third food-safety experts, some of whom may have ties to industry, he added.

But the FDA will be issuing new produce-safety standards, new hazard analysis and risk regulations for companies that handle food, and new foreign verification regulations for suppliers.

“Given the magnitude of the FDA food [including produce] safety requirements, it is not clear what the LGMA program proposed by the FDA will add to further enhance food safety,” Mr. Parker wrote. “If the LGMA standards are not as robust, they will be superfluous and, if they set an even higher bar, willingness to participate may diminish.”

The produce industry and AMS have been noticeably quiet this summer about the fate of the marketing agreement.

One source said that the produce industry is “no longer energized” by the marketing agreement, with new mandatory FDA standards rolling out later this year.

An AMS spokesperson said that there is no timeline for issuing the final marketing agreement and that staff was busy combing through the more than 2,100 comments.