(Dec. 26) While the U.S. Department of Agriculture mulls a voluntary national marketing agreement on the safety of leafy greens, smaller growers are voicing concerns about how the standards could affect them.

“We don’t want to imply that we should be exempt from food safety,” said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farms, a 200-acre organic farm in Guinda, Calif., and president of Santa Cruz-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

“We’re suggesting that given the high-risk nature of the fresh-cut industry, perhaps it makes sense for those metrics to apply to (processors) and that there be a different set of generic metrics for farmers who grow traditional crops that are cut and bunched for local markets,” said Redmond.

She was referring to bagged salads, implicated in the 2006 E. coli outbreak that touched off leafy greens marketing agreements in California and Arizona, which could be used as a template for national standards.

Redmond’s group has lobbied against national standards, citing fears that smaller growers won’t be able to shoulder the costs of new good agricultural practices, which could include stringent irrigation testing protocols and buffer zones around fields.

Charlotte Vallaeys, a farm and food policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, said the organization’s 1,200 members are worried that a few large California growers could overly influence a national marketing agreement.

“If it was adapted for different regions as well as different scales of farms that would be a good thing,” she said. “But we need more time to realize what is needed and not jump ahead with a marketing agreement that could potentially harm small and medium farmers.”

While the marketing agreement would be voluntary, like the California and Arizona programs, major foodservice, retail and wholesale buyers have requested suppliers enroll in the program — or have established even stricter guidelines.

At this point, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which regulates produce marketing orders and research and promotion programs, has taken just the first step in considering a national food safety standards for leafy greens. On Dec. 3, a public comment period closed, and now AMS will review the 3,500 comments it received.

“We have a rough idea on who sent stuff in, but it’s going to take us months to sort through it all to come out with some type of recommendation,” said Lloyd Day, AMS administrator.

He said AMS will consider the potential effect and benefits for small- and medium-sized operations, as well as major producers. Day said it’s too early to tell what form the agreement will take, but it won’t be a one-size-fits-all document that CAFF and Cornucopia Institute fear.

It’s possible that there may not even be an agreement.

“We may get considerable pushback that says it’s a bad idea,” he said.

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, said food safety is a shared responsibility in the produce industry.

“I don’t know how you can say that responsibility doesn’t exist if you’re a small farmer,” he said. “We have a lot of small farmers who sell to our handlers who are complying with our metrics. It strikes me as very odd that they (those opposed to the agreement) would try to draw this particular line in the sand.”

California grower Michael Dobler, partner in Dobler & Sons LLC, Moss Landing, said he’s not concerned about a national agreement because as a supplier for just about every Salinas handler, he is already complying with the California program’s good agriculture practices.

In Arizona, which is adopting the California marketing agreement to its own circumstances, Rich McDonald, business development director for Everkrisp Vegetables Inc., Phoenix, said he favored a national agreement. He said the locally grown movement will have to eventually accept the fact too.

“Everybody is pushing toward local grown produce,” he said. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure out they’re going to grow more local produce and eventually it will be packaged locally, too. A national plan would be key just for that reason. Maybe not today but down the road.”

Day said the leafy greens industry in California is concerned that it’s doing the right thing, but if there is another outbreak from another producing area, it will affect sales in all areas.

“But at the end of the day, the rest of the nation might not agree with California, so we’re going to look at these comments and then have discussions within the administration and those up on (Capitol Hill) to decide what course of action we all take together,” he said.

In many states, locally grown movements receive boosts from promotional programs, such as the 22-year-old Jersey Fresh program, which has its own set of quality standards.

New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus said he wants the USDA to understand there are different perspectives and a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety will not work for all family farmers.

“This is their livelihood, and the integrity of their families is on that package when they ship it,” he said. “There is a lot at stake for those producers, and we recognize that it’s important to have regulations that understand and are considerate of those different growing and regional conditions.”

At the same time, he said a fragmented approach, now taking place as buyers promote their own set of standards, such as with the Food Safety Leadership Council, is not feasible. McDonald’s Corp., Publix Super Markets Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are members of that group.

“It is very costly to our producers because many sell to more than one company and they have to comply with different standards for all of them, which leads to frustration that could be remedied by a common national standard lead by the government,” he said.

Kuperus said New Jersey already has established a produce safety task force and 700 growers and others in agriculture have undergone food safety training. He said the state is applying for business grants to conduct mock audits for producers of all sizes.

Safety push stirs small growers
“Given the high-risk nature of the fresh-cut industry, perhaps it makes sense for those metrics to apply to (processors) and that there be a different set of generic metrics for farmers who grow traditional crops that are cut and bunched for local markets,” says Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, Guinda, Calif., and president of Santa Cruz, Calif.,-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers.