(UPDATED COVERAGE May 3) The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal for a voluntary national leafy greens marketing agreement includes more regions and more grower board members than trade associations originally outlined.

The USDA posted the 239-page proposal and a podcast at www.ams.usda.gov.

On April 29, the site was to link to the Federal Register’s 90-day public comment section.

Beside the podcast, the USDA also posted three radio interviews. The first interview discusses the proposal. The second interview encourages comment. The third interview says farmers would have a voice in the agreement.

“It’s the next step in a long process to try to establish a voluntary structure that would allow handlers, growers and government stakeholders to collaborate to make leafy greens safer across the country,” said Hank Giclas, senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning at Western Growers.

Participation would be voluntary, but members would be subject to mandatory audits by the USDA or other auditors.

The proposal reflects the results of seven public hearings plus hundreds of letters and comments on the draft, said Rayne Pegg, Agricultural Marketing Service administrator.

“This will assist all segments of the leafy greens industry in meeting commercial food safety requirements,” Pegg said. “This proposal is a compromise.”

More regions, board members

One change is the creation of new regions — up from five to eight.

“A number of comments from the public (said) that the five zones really did not reflect different climates, production practices and markets,” Pegg said.

The original five zones were designed to include a major leafy greens production area in each, though the bulk is grown in the West.

Another difference is a larger board, up from 23 to 26 members, including 10 growers instead of six. Two of the 10 must be small growers. The prior draft provided for 13 handlers; there are now 12. There’s no change in the remaining makeup: one representative each from retail, foodservice, import and the general public.

“People really wanted to ensure that there was grower representation on the board and that there was representation of different sizes of operation, so that they would have a voice in the conversation about practices they would have to adhere to,” Pegg said.

Technical review committee

Other changes to the proposed agreement include new membership on the technical review committee.

“There were a lot of concerns over co-management with food safety and conservation practices, so the proposal includes the Natural Resource Conservation Service having a seat on the committee,” Pegg said.

Variables still to be decided include the fate of leafy greens marketing agreements in Arizona and California.

“A couple of concepts have been talked about,” Giclas said. “One is there may be no need for the state agreements. The industry wants to minimize duplication of efforts, fees and administration. The national and state agreements need to evaluate how they dovetail into each other. It may be that the state agreements become regional arms of the national agreement. It may be that they just dissolve.”

“It may be possible to work in conjunction with a national program,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. “Or it may make the need for state programs go away. It’s not a matter of putting the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in place nationwide — it’s building a whole new program.”

Organic dissension

The National Organic Coalition and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York called the USDA proposal misguided.

The organizations said in a news release the agreement is biased in favor of chemical fertilizers, which they called part of the food safety problem. And in their view, participation would not be fully voluntary.

“If their handler signs the agreement, the grower has no market unless they follow whatever growing practices are dictated by the agreement,” Steve Etka, coalition legislative director, said in the release.

Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, said the association had not taken a position on the proposed rule as of April 27.