With the comment period ending soon for the proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a final decision on the program may be more than a year away.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent the fall holding public hearings nationwide, gathering testimony from all interested parties about the details, need and use for such an agreement. USDA’s comment period closed Jan. 13.

The national agreement as proposed 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.

Jimmie Turner, a USDA spokesman, said after the comment period ends USDA will consider all the public input received and decide whether to proceed with the proposed agreement and what changes, if any, should be made.

Another comment period will start, Turner said, and there is no timeframe for how long this next process may take — it could be up to 18 months — or how long USDA will need before it can decide whether to adopt the proposal.

Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., who also chairs the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said there is no way to predict what USDA’s next step will be, but he’s optimistic the agency decided to work on the draft proposal next year.

“It’ safe to assume there will be more changes to the proposal based on the testimony (USDA) received,” Pezzini said.

But support for the agreement is far from universal with groups like the National Organic Coalition and the Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association, which are coming out against the measure because of what they say are negative impacts on small and medium growers.

Opponents charge that USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services, which would administer the national agreement, doesn’t have the authority to enact such a plan.

Trade groups like the St. Paul, Minn.-based Leafy Greens Council have been educating their members about the merits of the agreement and trying to dispel the perception of agreement as a California-driven initiative.

During a hearing on the agreement in September, the National Organic Coalition in Washington, D.C., closely questioned many testifying proponents, often challenging their assertions that such a marketing agreement is needed at all since Arizona’s and California’s leafy greens agreements already cover more than 75% of U.S. production volume.

“Food safety should not be addressed as a marketing issue,” said Steve Etka, the coalition’s legislative director.

USDA’s process for gathering testimony, Etka said, was “cumbersome” because smaller growers didn’t have the resources to devote to a full day of testimony.

Moreover, because this is an industry proposal, it “imbeds a bias toward a large-scale, mono-cultural, chemical-intensive system of agriculture, which research is showing to be a large part of the food safety problem.”

USDA should use the testimony gathered during the hearings, Etka said, to inform the Food and Drug Administration’s work on its leafy green guidance and decide against continuing work on proposed agreement.

Pezzini said even though support for the agreement is strongest in California and Arizona, the USDA and the FDA have publicly signaled their intent to regulate food safety for produce to the fullest extent of existing law, and pending congressional food safety legislation will likely expand FDA’s powers in food recalls.

“Based on comments from FDA, I really think they are looking for a program like” the agreement, Pezzini said.