Agricultural associations representing the U.S. leafy greens industry sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on June 8 requesting the agency begin the process of establishing a national marketing agreement for leafy greens.

The agreement would implement best practices and a related verification program that could reduce the potential for microbial contamination in these crops.

“This is really the first step in the process for USDA to commence the formal development of a national leafy greens marketing agreement that will enhance the preventative steps on the farm aimed at increasing the safety of leafy green vegetables,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ vice president of strategic planning, science, and technology.

"A national leafy greens marketing agreement marries the talent and expertise of industry, academic, and regulatory stakeholders in a union committed to the common goal of high quality safe leafy greens for the consumer," Giclas said.

The groups recommending the agreement include the United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Arizona Farm Bureau, Leafy Greens Council, California Farm Bureau, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, and Western Growers.

The group has been in discussions with leafy greens growers, handlers, other trade associations, and stakeholders throughout the country to develop a draft leafy greens marketing agreement.

The purpose of the agreement is to improve consumer confidence in leafy greens; enhance the quality of fresh leafy green vegetable products through the application of good agricultural practices; implement a uniform, auditable, science-based food quality enhancement program; provide for USDA validation and verification of program compliance; and foster greater collaboration with local, state, and federal regulators.

“A national marketing agreement would bring some much needed clarity and consistency to the myriad, often conflicting, and occasionally confounding food safety requirements now being imposed on leafy greens producers,” said Robert Whitaker, chief science officer, Produce Marketing Association.

The leafy greens industry took immediate action following the E. coli outbreak associated with spinach in 2006 to develop and implement the California Leafy Greens Producers Marketing Agreement within six months of the outbreak. Ninety-nine percent of all handlers participate in the program.

Handlers are assessed a per-carton fee which is paid to the California Department of Food and Agriculture which employs USDA-certified inspectors/auditors. The program is administered by a non-profit organization under state government oversight. A similar program is also now in place in Arizona. The two agreements account for about 90 percent of the nation’s leafy greens production.

The USDA will review the request and publish a Notice of Hearing in the Federal Register announcing the request, solicit input from stakeholders, and schedule public hearing dates.

The draft agreement is available at www.nlgma.org.