(UPDATED COVERAGE Dec. 10) The U.S. Department of Agriculture has terminated the proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, drawing mixed responses from the produce industry.
The formal announcement of its demise was in the Dec. 5 Federal Register .
“With the advent of (the Food Safety Modernization Act), it just wasn’t something they wanted to pursue,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
The California LGMA (and a sister organization in Arizona) supports the termination. Western Growers Association president Tom Nassif criticized the move.
“Western Growers is extremely disappointed with USDA’s termination of the proposed National Marketing Agreement for Leafy Greens,” Nassif said in a statement. “After investing hundreds of man hours in the development of a proactive approach that would have afforded leafy green producers across the country an opportunity to craft their own food safety programs with oversight from USDA and FDA, the agency has opted to step back.
“We hoped that the model could be advanced on a national level,” according to Nassif’s statement.
California and Arizona account for 90% of U.S. leafy greens production, Horsfall said.
“The framework of food safety in produce has changed so much since this (national agreement) was proposed four or five years ago, and with FSMA on the horizon I can understand why they’d make that decision,” Horsfall said. “It doesn’t change how we work with our industry in California or how Arizona does through their marketing agreement. We’ll continue to verify compliance with our rules, which will also verify compliance with FSMA down the road.
“But from a national outlook, they’ll rely on the rules under FSMA to make sure everyone’s following good practices,” he said.
Through the LGMA, California and Arizona growers “are in a different place,” Horsfall said. Through the organization, state employees inspect facilities.
Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, LaGrange, said the time has passed for a national LGMA.
"When we filed the petition it was a different day," he said. "We were trying to establish the guidelines that growers could voluntarily follow. The rules are different now, or will be when the FSMA regulations are finalized."
Hall is also executive director of the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association, representing food safety efforts in the wake of several foodborne illness outbreaks linked to cantaloupes.
"Because we have FSMA to provide regulations, I think terminating the national agreement is appropriate," Hall said.
“Since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed by President Obama and draft produce safety rules were released for comment, it seemed like the national LGMA was kind of a moot point," said Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer at Ocean Mist Farms and former California LGMA chairman. "The fallback now is the produce safety rules. We don’t really know what those are going to be; the FDA might even make an interim ruling. What we had envisioned as a national leafy greens marketing agreement will have to be covered by this produce safety rule.”
Although the USDA’s decision doesn’t directly effect the California/Arizona leafy green industry, it does raise questions about how the FSMA will address issues specifically related to leafy greens across the country.
“Hopefully, with the termination of this rule proceeding, USDA can reengage in food safety in a meaningful way and work constructively with reluctant parties to foster a culture and commitment to food safety,” Nassif said in his statement.
FSMA, Nassif said, faces many of the same opponents that a national LGMA faced.
“It is time to stop saying no to food safety on the farm and engage in the development of preventive programs at all levels,” he said.