National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Could Harm Local, Family-scale and Organic Growers

September 22nd, 2009

Corporate Agribusiness Proposes Regulating Itself
Instead of Stricter Governmental Food Safety Oversight

CORNUCOPIA, WI: USDA hearings begin this week on a proposal that would authorize the development of production and handling regulations for a long list of fresh vegetables, primarily leafy greens. The first of seven national hearings starts Tuesday, September 22 in Monterey, California, and then will shift to other locations across the country.

The proposed marketing agreement would allow leafy green handlers to attach a USDA-backed “food safety seal” to lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other vegetables while prohibiting most organic and local farmers selling through farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and those selling directly to retailers from using the same seal.

The plan, hatched and promoted by some of the nation’s largest corporate agribusinesses that distribute vegetables, is similar to a controversial California agreement that was put into place after spinach, contaminated with E. coli bacteria, sickened 199 people in 26 states and left three dead in September, 2006.

“This proposed food safety agreement will do nothing to tackle the root cause of the food safety problem, which is, in most cases, manure from confined animal feeding operations that is tainted with disease causing pathogenic bacteria,” said Will Fantle, of the Wisconsin-based farm policy group, The Cornucopia Institute.

Industry proponents pushing this will be hard pressed to demonstrate that their proposal will actually prevent food borne illness. Just days ago, on September 18, Ippolito International, a signatory to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, recalled 1,715 cartons of spinach due to salmonella contamination.

But the proposed safety standards, which have been described as a “corporate-backed marketing ploy,” may give agribusinesses using the new food safety seal a boost and lead many consumers to assume that vegetables from industrial-scale monoculture farms, primarily in California, are safer than the leafy greens available from local growers around the country. And that has some farmers worried.

“I am concerned that organic, and small and medium sized local growers like myself, will become marketplace ‘second-class citizens’ in the eyes of some consumers, by implying that my produce is less safe – when the very opposite is likely to be true,” said Tom Willey, a certified organic vegetable grower from Madera, CA.

In fact, the produce most likely to be implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks are the bags of leafy greens on supermarket shelves rather than organic produce bought directly from a farmer or when distributed to a local co-op or specialty retailer.

In addition, farmers who want to sell to handlers using the new food safety seal will likely have to implement costly record-keeping and testing protocols on their acreage. This is economically unfeasible for many small growers.

Some farmers may even have to undo decades of conservation and habitat-based improvements – such as water and shoreland stream buffers – in the attempt to isolate their crops from wildlife, that have never been proven to be the source of past contamination problems. “Isolating wildlife is a smokescreen deflecting concern away from factory farm livestock production which is demonstrated to create water, air and soil contamination,” Fantle added.

The September 17th edition of the New York Times ran a disturbing cover story about widespread contamination of well water in states with high concentrations of industrial-scale livestock facilities. Contaminated water in rural areas, used for irrigation or for washing vegetables, has been implicated in past contamination incidents involving fresh vegetables.

“The Cornucopia Institute agrees that the safety of our food supply is a vitally important issue,” said Fantle. “This is precisely why we believe that the USDA should not allow corporate handlers to mix serious food safety concerns with their self-serving marketing interests.”

Up until this proposal, food safety has been under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. The USDA’s limited food safety responsibilities primarily concern the nation’s meat supply.

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