(Feb. 14) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee debated the need for a national marketing order or agreement for leafy greens but stopped short of a commodity-specific recommendation.

The committee instead recommended during its Feb. 8 meeting that “USDA make marketing agreements and marketing orders available to industries to facilitate national adoption and compliance with food safety standards, such as good agricultural practices (GAPs), good handling practices (GHPs) and good manufacturing practices (GMPs).”

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said committee members involved in other commodities felt uncomfortable dictating a recommendation to the leafy green industry.

“Those are decisions that industry has to pursue itself,” Stuart said.

Michael Durando, chief of the USDA’s marketing order administrative branch, said the agency usually waits for an industry to approach USDA about marketing orders and agreements. However, USDA published an advance notice of proposed rule making — though it had not received an official proposal — in the Federal Register in October, seeking comments about the possibility of creating a national marketing program to regulate the handling of leafy greens.

The result was nearly 3,500 comments, the most ever in response to a fruit and vegetable issue.

Although comments varied widely, there were common themes, Durando said. Numerous participants said if a national marketing order or agreement is to be implemented it should be science based, should consider environmental factors, requirements should be tailored to different growing regions and there should be exemptions for small and organic growers.

A national marketing order would require a referendum by growers, while a marketing agreement would require handlers to sign off on a program.

“It’s very hard to do,” said committee member Matthew D’Arrigo, vice president of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York Inc. “Maybe an agreement is the faster way to get started working toward an order, but everyone has to be doing the right thing. One rogue grower-shipper doing his own thing can make everybody vulnerable.”

Jim Corby, committee member and vice president of produce merchandising for Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion LLC, said it would be in the best interest of grower-shippers to create their own national standards before retailers come up with their own requirements.

He said a national marketing order or agreement for leafy greens not only needs to be implemented, but should be a model for the other commodities.

Robert Keeney, deputy administrator for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service’s fruit and vegetable programs, said the Food and Drug Administration has expressed an interest in creating programs for tomatoes, cantaloupes and others.

“We might not be far from proceeding with a marketing agreement for leafy greens,” Keeney said. “The points have to be worked out as to how far and wide it would go.”

Committee member Bob Morrissey, executive director of the Plant City, Fla.-based National Watermelon Association, said his group plans to discuss the possibility of a marketing order or agreement at its board meeting later this year.