(UPDATED COVERAGE, Sept. 24) MONTEREY, Calif. — Major grower-shippers made their case before federal regulators for a national leafy greens marketing agreement during daylong meetings held Sept. 22-24.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture started its first meeting in a nationwide series in Monterey to gather input on the proposed plan. USDA’s next hearing set is for Sept. 30 in Jacksonville, Fla.

A panel of six USDA representatives heard more than eight hours of testimony each day from a variety of groups backing and opposing the proposal. The officials asked pointed and detailed questions of industry members, represented in part by the Western Growers Association, who submitted the draft agreement to USDA earlier this year. USDA is taking public comments to determine whether there is enough interest and support to enact a voluntary national agreement.

Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., and the first witness to testify, told the panel the national agreement will help reduce the risk of another outbreak and the number of redundant audits growers must now comply with.

“The leafy greens industry believes (USDA) is the most appropriate agency” for overseeing the propose agreement, said Pezzini, who is also chairman of a leafy greens marketing agreement in California, in his remarks. After the hearing Pezzini said he is optimistic USDA will enact the agreement, though with days of testimony still left it’s uncertain what future commentators will tell the agency.

The national agreement, as proposed, would be similar to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement enacted after the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach. Arizona handlers are covered under their own agreement.

It would cover a range of leafy green commodities: arugula, cabbage, chard, cilantro, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce, parsley, radicchio, spinach and spring mix.

John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, and Sammy Duda, vice president of Duda Farms Fresh Foods, Salinas, both offered support for the agreement at the hearing.

Duda told the panel that while complying with California agreement adds about $50 in costs per acre for the company, ensuring a safe product for consumers is paramount.

“It’s a huge leap forward for product safety,” Duda said.

Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers, also spoke in support.

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

Chip English, an attorney for 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.

English said since the issue hasn’t been addressed in courts, the coalition considers it “an open question” because this agreement will add another layer of unnecessary regulation to small organic growers who cannot afford the cost of compliance and will be shut out of the market place.

Rayne Pegg, the newly appointed administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said it may be a year or more before the agency makes a decision. After the panel concludes the hearings, it will publish its draft decision, accept more public comment, and then forward its recommendation to the Secretary of Agriculture.

“We are very interested in what we’ll hear every day of the hearings,” Pegg said.