Four years after it was first floated, the fate of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s voluntary National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is still uncertain.

National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement's fate remains unclear

Late in 2007, the USDA proposed the national agreement. Finally, in late April, the agency published the proposed rule in a 239-page document.

The agency has received more than 2,100 comments on the proposal, said Gwen Sparks, public affairs manager for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

“We don’t have a timeline for completion of the reviews (of the comments) or next steps,” she said in an e-mail Dec. 6.

Industry leaders have not heard any timeline from USDA, said Hank Giclas, Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers senior vice president for science, technology and strategic planning.

A recent partisan dust-up might delay the proposal more, Giclas said. The so-called “Christmas tree tax” (Opinion, A6) may have sensitized the USDA on the issue of marketing agreements and orders. What’s more, the agency’s dependency on Congress for its appropriations may have made it difficult for the USDA to risk its credibility on the issue while the USDA budget was finalized.

The USDA also may want to wait to see what kind of food safety produce rules will be issued by the Food and Drug Administration as they implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“It would be my hope that what FDA does and what USDA does intersects and coordinates, ultimately,” he said. “That would certainly be in the industry’s best interests.”

Leaders of Western Growers had discussed the possibility of a federal marketing order for leafy greens as early as 2006, when California growers were planning the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in response to an E. coli outbreak linked to spinach grown in San Benito County.

The California group, established in 2007, began food safety audits that summer. Although membership is voluntary, the LGMA has reported that companies representing 99% of California spinach production are members.

According to comments on the USDA’s proposal, it still has critics, despite membership being voluntary.

There are concerns that the national leafy greens marketing agreement won’t work for all growers or all states, said Michael Geary, chief executive officer of the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association, Columbus.

Geary said Dec. 6 that growers in Ohio believe the proposed national agreement won’t accommodate how Ohio crops are grown, or the diversity of those crops. A voluntary state agreement will be launched there in 2012 to account for that diversity, he said.

Giclas said he understands the USDA may have more work to do to sort through objections to the national agreement.

He said even California and Arizona growers who support the concept have some concerns about the USDA’s proposal.