Regional hearings underway across the U.S. are drawing support and opposition to the proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA).

The NLGMA would create a voluntary national program where handlers-shippers would decide whether to sign on as signatories to the agreement. If they sign, the handler-shippers could only purchase leafy green vegetables from growers who utilized accepted best management practices (BMPs) in production. Handlers-shippers and growers would be subject to scheduled and unscheduled government audits.

A dozen national and regional proponent groups endorse the NLGMA. Concerns exist in regions across the country that need to be addressed. Without regional solutions the NLMGA could be derailed.

A key to the opposition is a “one-size-fits-all” viewpoint; enacting similar programs and rules in place in leafy green production in California and Arizona on growers in other regions of the country.

“The buzzword is: I don't want the California way of doing things imposed upon me,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer, United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. United Fresh, a NLGMA proponent, is a trade organization representing produce companies and their partners.

“I understand that viewpoint. That's why the NLGMA is set up to have regional variation,” Stenzel said. “There are many ways you can grow safely. You have to look at the different cultural factors in each region.”

The brainchild of the NLGMA is the Western leafy greens industry. California and Arizona growers produce about 90 percent of the nation's leafy green crop. The remaining 10 percent is grown in Texas, the Midwest, and Eastern states including New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas, and Florida.

The NLGMA is closely modeled after the 2007 California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The agreement was quickly developed by the Western produce industry following an E. coli outbreak in 2006 traced to California-grown spinach.

Today the California agreement includes about 120 handlers representing about 99 percent of the state's leafy green volume grown according to BMPs. Most of California's leafy green industry is based in the Salinas Valley, the largest vegetable production hub in the world.

A program closely mirrored after the California version was enacted in Arizona for winter-grown vegetables. The 34 Arizona shipper signatories purchase 98 percent of the vegetable volume. Arizona and Southern California grow about 85 percent of the nation's winter supply of vegetables for salads.

The primary purpose of the NLGMA is to improve food safety by reducing potential sources of contamination in leafy green production and handling. Western proponents are seeking NLGMA enactment before the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration pass more stringent regulations within the next few years.

According to USDA, the NLGMA would be financed by assessments on first handlers of leafy green vegetables for the fresh market. A 23-member committee would administer the program. Most members would be growers and handlers nominated by the industry and appointed by the USDA. The agency's Agricultural Marketing Service would administer the agreement.

Leafy greens in the NLGMA include arugula, cabbage, (red, green, and savoy), chard, cilantro, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce (iceberg, leaf, butter, head and romaine), parsley, radicchio, spinach, spring mix, baby leaf items, and any other leafy green vegetable recommended by the committee and approved by the USDA secretary.

Concerns over the NLGMA exist in Ohio. Growers use different techniques to produce high-quality leafy greens for direct marketing, community food alliances, and large retail sales.

“Ohio leafy green growers are very interested in the NLGMA proposal moving forward for the sake of food safety,” said Adam Sharp, senior director of legislative policy with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. Sharp listens to growers chime in on the issue. Some are not supportive.

“Issues need to be addressed in the NLGMA so Midwestern growers can continue to produce high-quality leafy greens and maintain flexibility in their production practices,” Sharp said.

Another Ohio issue: Horses are used by many Amish farmers instead of mechanized equipment in leafy green production. Sharp says the Amish have strict food safety guidelines in place.

Animals and fecal matter near leafy green fields are prohibited in the West due to E. coli concerns. The E. coli outbreak in California-grown spinach was never traced to a specific cause, state and federal officials summarize. Animal feces were suspected but never proven.

The E. coli outbreak sickened hundreds of consumers and overnight eroded consumer confidence in leafy greens no matter where the greens were grown. Many fields of E. coli-free greens were plowed under costing the leafy greens industry millions of dollars in losses.

“Any on-farm requirements must be flexible,” Sharp reiterated. “We have a real mixed bag of growers and production. We want to make sure that the agreement will not hamper small or large producers.”

At press time the Ohio Farm Bureau did not support the NLGMA.

Ohio leafy green grower Steve Hirsch testified at a food safety hearing earlier this year before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.

The Hirsch family operates Hirsch Fruit Farm in Chillicothe, Ohio, selling 85 percent of the produce and fruit directly to the public and wholesale.

“We embrace a suite of food safety practices on our farm, in our markets, at the produce auction, and at the farmers market,” Hirsch said. “There are many common themes among these practices, but they can vary. They vary because these environments differ and require food safety practices tailored to provide the customer the safest and highest quality food possible per these different settings.”

Hirsch says the key to any new food safety system should include flexibility.

“A single, national, one-size-fits-all structure will not work. A national food safety system that allows for specific on-farm practices to be developed at the state level will achieve the best results,” Hirsch testified.

Stenzel of United Fresh adds, “I think growers in Ohio already have good management practices. The NLGMA would offer a system to verify that for everyone.”

The regional NLGMA hearings are drawing large crowds. Upcoming hearings include Oct. 6, Columbus, Ohio; Oct. 8, Denver, Colo.; Oct. 14-15, Yuma, Ariz.; Oct. 20, Syracuse, N.Y.; and Oct. 22, Charlotte, N.C. Hearings were conducted in Monterey, Calif., and Jacksonville, Fla., in September.

Hank Giclas, Western Growers' vice president of science and technology, says, “The national marketing agreement for leafy greens is a mechanism that marries together the best expertise of the industry, regulatory, and science communities in a totally open and transparent fashion that puts everyone on equal footing.”

Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau led the charge to bring the California leafy greens plan to fruition.

“NLGMA is a program that works for industry, protects public health, and allows consumers to have confidence in the leafy greens industry,” Giclas said. “NLGMA is not an effort by California to push a one-size-fits-all concept on other states; it is designed to work for the nationwide industry and its variability.”

The field hearings are important, he says, to identify where the concerns are and how to address them.

Will the USDA approve the NLGMA?

“I'm confident that the majority of the industry supports it,” Giclas said. “There is anxiety and misperception about the proposal that must be overcome in the context of these hearings.”

Stenzel added, “I hope the agreement is accepted. Once growers and shippers in other regions get a little more time with it, they will understand that it is a voluntary program.”

Prior to printing the NLGMA proposal in the Federal Register, USDA-AMS received 3,500 comments in support of the program.

The NLGMA proponent group includes: Georgia Fresh Vegetable Association; Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association; Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association; Grower-Shipper Association of Central California; Texas Fresh Vegetable Association; United Fresh; Produce Marketing Association; the Georgia, Arizona, and California Farm Bureaus; Leafy Greens Council; California Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement; and Western Growers.