Decision time is at hand.

After the conclusion of seven U.S. Department of Agriculture hearings in September and October on a proposed voluntary national marketing agreement for leafy green vegetables, proponents of the concept participated in an Oct. 27 online roundtable for The Packer.

The national agreement is modeled after the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, enacted after the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach; there is a similar agreement covering Arizona-grown leafy greens. They cover arugula, cabbage, chard, cilantro, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce, parsley, radicchio, spinach and spring mix.

Roundtable participants were Tom Karst, national editor for The Packer, Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers; Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.; Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California agreement; and Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, La Grange.

Karst: For those who attended the leafy greens hearings, what have been your impressions about how they have gone?

Hall: It all depends who you talk with. Overall, there is strong enthusiasm for the NLGMA ... but there are some growers that are concerned as to what effect it will have on their operations.

Horsfall: I was only in Monterey (Calif.) and Yuma (Ariz.), which may give a somewhat skewed view, since those are the two states most familiar with existing marketing agreements. Both of those hearings seemed to go well, with both proponents and opponents pretty well informed on the issues.

Giclas: I participated in every hearing. My impression is that there are a range of reactions from enthusiastic to fearful to trepidations. A lot of the concerns stem from misperceptions about the agreement. That’s why I think these were extremely valuable, as they allowed for a lot of new information to be disseminated and folks got the opportunity to see the broad support for a national marketing agreement.

Karst: Hank, what hearing had the most opposition or reservations about the agreement?

Giclas: From my perspective, the Monterey hearing was perhaps the most opposition (although there were usually from three to six opposition witnesses present at most (not all) hearings as in that setting they were formally represented by counsel and had a large list of witnesses they called to oppose the agreement.

Guenther: I was only able to participate in the Charlotte (N.C.) hearing and (United Fresh) Tom Stenzel testified at the Ohio hearing.  From my perspective, there I would agree with Hank that there was a lot of misinformation out there about what the NLGMA was about, how it would impact their leafy green operations, and what could be done. On the other hand, for those who took the time to really look at this proposal and understand what these hearings provided, there were valuable suggestions to strengthen the agreement proposal.

Karst: What was the top concern, and did you feel you got some traction in answering some of the objections?

Hall: I think the top concern is the fear of the unknown ... there are a lot of small growers that feel they cannot afford to implement GAPS on their farm.  As an industry I think we have to work with the small grower to figure out a way to help them do it.  I know when Beth Bland on our staff begins to work with the grower and they understand what the GAPS are all about it becomes a small hill they have to climb and it is no longer a MOUNTAIN. 

Giclas: With some opponents — particularly consumer groups — there is a philosophical objection to USDA being in any way involved with the verification of food safety on the farm. This objection exists despite the fact that both the Food and Drug Administration and USDA seem to be working to develop stronger lines of collaboration and cooperation.

Guenther: I would agree that most of the concern centered on who has jurisdiction over the food safety for produce, USDA or FDA. Also, there were a number of concerns expressed about how the different administrative zones were organized, representation on the different boards, and cost associated with participating in the agreement.

Karst: Scott, are your growers anxious for a national agreement, would you say?

Horsfall: I was pretty impressed in both Yuma and Monterey by the industry’s stepping up to testify in favor of the national agreement, so, yes, I think they’re very supportive.

Karst: What have you heard about “next steps” from USDA? Are we looking at a proposed rule, and what is the time frame for a decision from the agency?

Giclas: With the hearings behind us there will be a briefing period in which anybody can submit a brief based on the record established during the hearings. That briefing period extends until mid-January. After that USDA will evaluate the record and the briefs and make a determination whether to move forward with a NLGMA. I do not believe they are bound by any specific timeline in making that determination — but as proponents we have already expressed our interest in a decision in the first quarter of 2010.

Guenther: I think that while we support a thorough but timely evaluation by USDA, we are looking more realistically at the end of next year based on what is currently on the administration’s plate.

Karst: As you observe what the FDA has been doing and saying regarding commodity specific guidance — for leafy greens and other commodities — do you see anything there that gives you pause and would make you want to wait to see what kind of regulations they might draft in the next year or so before proceeding with the NLGMA?

Horsfall: Actually, just the opposite. I think movement towards a national LGMA puts us in a better position to interact with FDA as they work on any new regulations

Hall:  So far what I have seen from FDA is making the guidelines and regs ‘commodity specific and risk based'. I think as we move along with the NLGMA it gives us credibility in FDA's eyes and they seem to be willing to work with industry on the guidances.

Giclas: You have an industry committed to proactively advancing food safety in a select set of commodities that FDA is also interested in. This effort allows FDA, USDA and industry to bring their respective strengths to the table to improve the quality and safety of leafy greens and confidence in the sector.

Horsfall: We have heard FDA officials speak positively about looking at marketing agreements as a possible mechanism to implement their new mandate — having a program in place with defined science-based standards, mandatory government inspections, etc. can only help.

Guenther: Yes, I think having a national agreement in place provides a strong framework for FDA to utilize when developing leafy green guidance or ultimately mandatory standards.

Karst: If there the NLGMA does go forward, what are your thoughts on how it would compare with what is in California and Arizona right now?

Horsfall: I think that the focus on science-based metrics is really the key — and I’m excited about the fact that the NLGMA will have the benefit of all the new research being done at the Center for Produce Safety and other places when it puts its standards together. These programs — whether state or national — are only going to get stronger as we get access to new research

Giclas: I think that in terms of best practices or metrics ... the California and Arizona metrics may not apply in other areas. If a marketing agreement goes forward, the industry and the technical review board and other interested parties will need to develop metrics for a national program. It is important that they be implementable in the field, address the unique risks of various practices and regions and most of all that they are protective. The California and Arizona documents will inform this process but additional discussion and work lies ahead to ensure that there is a set (or sets) of metrics that works in different areas, balances food safety and environmental goals and addresses the myriad stakeholders ideas and concerns. That is the beauty of a marketing agreement ... it engages these diverse interests for the benefit of all.

 That is a good question.  Basically most food safety regulations are 80 to 85% the same no matter when in this country you are located.  BASIC food safety guidelines work everywhere ... it is the 15% that need to have the flexibility to be regionally to answer your question ... a lot of what is in the California and Arizona matrix will be in the NLGMA because it is basic GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES ... but there will be some that is not appropriate for Georgia or Florida or North Carolina.

Guenther: That California and Arizona LGMA can be a resource in the development of a national agreement but would not apply universally across the country. Research is the key in any of these discussions whether it is a marketing agreement or a FDA standard, there must be good research to back up any requirements placed on fruit and vegetable producers no matter your size or cultivating practices.