Following last fall’s crisis over E. coli contamination of spinach, the growers, distributors and retailers of salad mix started talking about improving their safety practices. A fair amount of activity in this area has been happening in California, including some bills in the legislature and voluntary standards like the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. (Be sure to check out the photo on the Leafy Greens website of an endless expanse of monocultured greens.)
Now the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is getting into the act. The Federal Register announcement explains the proposal in detail. Here’s a taste:
This advance notice of proposed rulemaking invites comments on a potential regulatory program intended to maintain the quality of leafy green commodities by reducing the risk of pathogenic contamination during their production and handling. AMS is considering implementation of a marketing agreement (agreement) in response to heightened public and industry concern about the safe production and handling of leafy greens.
Under the program being considered, handlers could voluntarily enter into the agreement, but signatories would then be required to comply with the agreement’s regulations, which would specify Best Practices for minimizing the risk of pathogenic contamination of leafy greens.
The current working definition of leafy greens in the California agreement (PDF) — and the starting point for the AMS rulemaking — is absurdly broad in its scope: "iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, baby leaf lettuce (i.e., immature lettuce or leafy greens), escarole, endive, spring mix, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula and chard."
Judith Redmond, the current president of CAFF and a farmer at Full Belly Farm in Yolo County, California, recently wrote an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee that was reprinted at Gristmill. In it, she argues that "applying these standards across the board will not protect the public health or solve the state’s E. coli problem, and could destroy our internationally heralded family farm economy." Indeed, CAFF’s analysis shows that 98.5 percent of E. coli illnesses from California leafy greens since 1999 have been traced to processed, bagged salad. Therefore, she concludes, the special rules should be applied to the problem product — the processed, bagged greens — not to all leafy greens from all sources.
An additional danger is the possible assault on nature through the creation of "sterile zones" — growing areas where all species except for the desired greens are wiped out. This will eliminate beneficial insects, helpful microorganisms, and habitat for animals.
The Cornucopia Institute explains how the rules could affect small and medium farms:
Small- and medium-scale farmers would bear the greatest financial and logistical burden of such specified guidelines. For example, if the rules require testing for pathogens at every harvest — as they currently do in California — then large-scale farms that grow one type of crop and harvest only one to three times per season would pay much less than smaller and more diverse farms that continually harvest many types of vegetables. If regulations dictate a single set of growing practices and food safety measures, which are appropriate for large-scale “factory farms” but not for diverse family farms, we risk losing the very farms that grow leafy greens in a healthy and sustainable way. A one-size-fits-all regulation will not work!
Others have also written in opposition to the one-size-fits-all safety plans. For example, in a recent Digest, we mentioned an op-ed by the CEO of Bon Appetit Management Company, a leader in institutional farm-to-fork sourcing, which contends that the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement should apply only to large industrial producers, not small farmers.
How to make your voice heard
Comments must be received by Monday, December 3. At this late date, you can submit comments in two ways:
All comments should reference the docket number AMS-FV-07-0090 and will become part of the public record.