Television attorney Perry Mason would be proud of the crucial testimony and meticulous cross-examination during the USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) two-day hearing on the proposed National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (NLGMA).

The 16 growers, handlers, and allied industry representatives who testified in Yuma, Ariz., in October in favor of the NLGMA and the three who voiced opposition cited how the proposal could improve or harm the U.S. leafy greens industry and ongoing food safety efforts.

The Yuma location was the fifth of seven NLGMA public hearing locations held across the nation’s leafy green belt this fall. The first hearing was held in Monterey, Calif.

The NLGMA proposal was recommended to the USDA-AMS by a proponent group comprised of grower and handler members of the fresh produce industry. The proposed agreement is under consideration through Section 8(b) of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1937. If approved, AMS would administer the agreement.

The NLGMA would cover fresh mature and immature leafy portions of arugula, three types of cabbage, chard, cilantro, endive, escarole, kale, five lettuce types, parsley, radicchio, spinach, and certain types of spring mix.

The overall goal of the NLGMA is to increase food safety from ‘farm to fork.’ Agreement rules would govern the production and handling of U.S. grown and imported leafy greens.

The NLGMA would authorize development and implementation of regulations (metrics) covering good practices in agricultural production, handling, and manufacturing, plus an audit verification process. Science-based ‘best practices’ could be regional and flexible in nature.

The NLGMA mirrors the California and Arizona leafy green marketing agreements hastily developed after an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in fall 2006. The E. coli-laced spinach, traced back to California’s Salinas Valley, killed several people and sickened hundreds.

The Food and Drug Administration never identified a definite source of the E. coli, yet animal feces, water, and soil are the major suspects. The outbreak caused millions of dollars in financial losses to the leafy green industry as consumers steered clear of leafy green vegetables. Consumer confidence was shattered.

“To not have these (food safety) standards in place puts our category of the fresh vegetable industry in great jeopardy,” Victor Smith informed the panel members.

Smith is the owner and chief executive officer of JV Farms in Yuma, plus Fresh Innovations and Agricola El Toro in Baja, Mexico. He farms 11,000 acres of conventional and organic-grown leafy greens, all grown under existing state LGMA metrics. Smith also grows leafy greens in Center, Colo., under the same metrics.

“The so-called ‘spinach crisis’ of 2006 wreaked havoc in our industry and caused significant economic damage to our companies,” Smith said. “If we have the NLGMA, we’ll have vastly safer food.”

A major criticism of the NLGMA by smaller farmers is the program allegedly favors larger leafy green growers who might spread food safety costs out over more acres.

The AMS panel asked each person who testified if they were a small or large leafy green grower. AMS defined a large grower as having $750,000 or more in gross sales annually.

The AMS’ Melissa Schmaedick asked Smith if he would support different (metric) requirements in other U.S. leafy green-growing regions. Smith responded, “Yes, as long as the produce doesn’t have pathogens.”

Different metrics governing water use are among the regional differences the NLGMA must address. Smith pointed to differences in his own operations. The Yuma farm at 250 feet elevation receives water from the Colorado River delivered to fields by canals. Well water delivered by center pivots is the centerpiece of the Colorado operation.

Leafy green grower and NLGMA supporter Alex Jack, Brawley, Calif., refers to the leafy green marketing agreement concept as insurance for growers and industry.

“Nobody likes to pay his or her insurance bill, but you’re sure glad to have it when disaster strikes,” said Jack, president of Jack Bros. Inc. “Disaster in this instance is a product recall of your products which may have inadvertently become contaminated ... Insurance is spending money daily so it doesn’t cost us much more down the road.”

A modern day product recall can easily surpass $1 million, says Jack. Every grower must have a plan to substantially reduce the threat of product contamination for the long-term health of the agricultural industry and consumers.

“If everyone participates (in the NLGMA) the chance of a recall drops,” Jack said in a response to a panel member’s question. “Everyone’s ranch is more sanitary.”

The Western leafy greens industry has hastened the NLGMA’s adoption since the USDA and FDA have made it clear that more stringent and costly regulations on leafy greens are eminent.

Proponents emphasize the NLGMA is a voluntary program. Handlers-shippers would have the option to become signatories to the agreement. Once signed on, the program would be mandatory for signatories. Those handlers-shippers could only purchase leafy greens from growers who utilize the metrics during crop production.

The NLGMA would be financed by assessments on the first handlers of leafy greens.

A silver bullet to improve food safety was offered by Larry Cox, a second-generation leafy green grower in California’s Imperial Valley and Mexico.

“Everyone would love to have a kill step,” Cox said. He was referring to the process of irradiation (radiation), an unpopular and confusing concept with consumers.

Testifying against the NLGMA included Torey Ligon, marketing and membership manager with the Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson, Ariz. The co-op sells organic fruits and vegetables from smaller farmers in southern Arizona.

“It appears this agreement may require testing and sanitation procedures that are unrealistic and unnecessary for small and mid-sized farms,” Ligon said.

“The agreement does not appear to offer enough safeguards to protect the unique growing methods of organic farmers,” Ligon testified. “By encouraging farmers to adopt new food metrics under this agreement, I worry that some farmers may be pushed away from established sustainable farming practices such as the promotion of biodiversity, crop rotation, and organic pest control.”

Food safety scientist Michelle Jay-Russell, program director of the Western Center for Food Safety, Davis, Calif., testified based on her research focus in pre-harvest leafy green food safety. Her studies identify potential risk factors and mitigation strategies to prevent microbial contamination of produce from domestic and wild animals.

Jay-Russell participated in the 2006 E. coli-spinach outbreak farm investigation while a research scientist with the California Department of Public Health.

“I see an urgent need to implement science-based strategies to reduce the risk from future leafy green-related outbreaks and recalls,” Jay-Russell told the AMS staff. “The National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement represents one such avenue.”

Produce safety and postharvest physiology researcher Jose Fonseca of the University of Arizona endorsed the NLGMA. He informed panel members that more stringent growing metrics may be needed for leafy green production.

“I found that the area contaminated as a result of splashed fecal particles from animal feces in the field (during irrigation) goes beyond the 5-foot perimeter indicated in the California/Arizona leafy greens marketing agreement metrics,” Fonseca said. “The farthest distance travelled by fecal matter can be more than twice what has been established depending on the wind speed during a sprinkle irrigation session.”

To view the complete testimony and supporting evidence from all NLGMA hearings, go online to www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/. Click on the “Proposed Marketing Agreement for Leafy Greens Main Page” tab.

email: cblake@farmpress.com