April 26, 2011
On Tuesday, April 26, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) released its proposal for a National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (NLGMA). If adopted, the program would be used to govern the production, handling, and manufacturing of leafy green vegetables, including spinach, lettuce, and cabbage, for handlers who sign on and for all the farmers who supply those participating handlers.
Explaining the vision for the proposed Agreement, AMS says NLGMA “would minimize the potential for microbial contamination, thereby improving customer confidence in leafy green vegetables in the marketplace.” The Agency adds that the Agreement “would be available to operations of all sizes, locations, and agricultural practices.”
One component of NLGMA is a governing board, which would be tasked with submitting recommendations to USDA Secretary Vilsack and with enforcing the Agreement. The Agency originally suggested that the board consist of 23 members, six of these to be held by producers. In the newest proposal, the Agency expands both of these numbers, to a total of 26 board members, ten of these being producers, including two small farm representatives. Additionally, the proposed structure includes 12 handlers. The recommendations of the board would be forwarded to the Secretary of Agriculture who in turn would release them for public comment.
Another aspect of the proposed Agreement is its division of the U.S. into “administrative zones…to recognize groupings of states with similar climates, production environments, crops, agricultural practices, and other factors.” While the original NLGMA proposal included five zones, the latest proposal suggests eight such regions. This map shows the zones as well as the proposed division of seats on the aforementioned board.
A point of confusion throughout the NLGMA debate has been the relationship of a NLGMA with Food and Drug Administration regulations for leafy greens under the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). AMS claims the NLGMA would “apply” the FDA produce standards and regulations, though the NLGMA might also amplify those regulations or add specific regional requirements. In addition, the NLGMA would be enforced via third party entities, an enforcement mechanism that will not be found in other FSMA produce regulations.
This unusual dual implementation mechanism would be unique to leafy greens should the NLGMA go through. All other produce varieties would have the FDA regulations to comply with but not a national marketing agreement nor a third party audit procedure.
The Agency will publish the proposal in the Federal Register on Friday, April 29, at which point at 90-day public comment period will commence. AMS is specifically seeking comments on whether or not to move forward with the Agreement and, if so, comments on the proposed structure of governance for the Agreement.
Additionally, in its press release, AMS notes that “all interested parties, including small, organic, and diversified operations, are encouraged to submit comments.” NSAC will be filing comments in opposition to the agreement and with additional recommendations should the agreement move forward.
The National Organic Coalition has already issued a release criticizing USDA’s decision to move forward with a proposed Agreement, noting that in states with agreements that served as models for the national agreement the farming practices imposed have made matters worse, not better. NOC also notes that AMS is not a food safety agency and that while it advertises the agreement as voluntary, it is voluntary only with respect to industry handlers, not to the farmers who sell to those handlers. For the farmer, it will be mandatory if their handler is a party to the agreement.