I packed a suit for three days of USDA hearings over an industry-proposed national food safety agreement [pdf] for leafy greens. In retrospect, I should have packed a flask. After 11 hours a day of industry muscle-flexing, including a threatened lawsuit, straight whiskey was looking pretty good.
The proposal being considered, first in Monterey and later at six other locations across the country, would create a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which I’ll explain in a sec. The proposal’s authors are big producer, shipper, and processing associations that helped create a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement currently in place in California and Arizona. What’s a marketing agreement, you ask? I know it sounds unbearably dull. But if there's one thing I've learned this week, it's that names are deceiving.
Marketing agreements are generally used by the agriculture industry as a tool to promote consistent quality. The industry makes a proposal to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and, if it’s accepted, AMS helps carry out the agreement as part of its responsibility to promote U.S. ag products. The grading system for beef, for example, which recognizes USDA Prime, Choice, Select, etc. based on the fat content and tenderness of the meat, is one example. Companies have their meat inspected for those attributes and get the ‘USDA Prime’ or other seal. Consumers know what to expect when they buy prime, so consistency is achieved.
Traditionally, marketing agreements are used for quality factors like taste, texture, color or shape (one now-famous marketing agreement in Florida prohibits out-of-state exports of “ugly” tomatoes so that consumers will associate "Florida grown" with "perfectly round"). This time, though, it’s different: the industry has proposed a marketing agreement that would govern the safety of leafy greens — specifically how they’re grown, shipped, and processed. The proposed definition of greens is broad, including not just "baby salad" mixes or lettuce, but also things like cabbage, kale, and chard that are often cooked before they’re eaten.
Starting this week, the USDA’s Ag Marketing Service began a series of hearings around the country (schedule) to determine whether it should move forward with helping the industry develop this proposal. If it goes through, the national LGMA would create a set of farming, shipping and manufacturing practices that would ostensibly reduce the presence of pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 in leafy greens. Companies that sign on to the agreement would get audited by the USDA to verify that they’re complying.
Marketing agreements are voluntary, meaning that only the industry players who want to sign on become parties to it. If a signatory company passes the audit, they can display a USDA seal on their packaging. But in this case, the agreement can only be signed by handlers – companies that get greens from farmers and store, ship or process them. If they sign on, they are only allowed to buy products from farmers that comply with the on-farm part of the NLGMA requirements and get audited.
So while it’s voluntary for handlers, if you’re a farmer selling to a handler who signs it, the agreement becomes mandatory by proxy for you.
The goal of these hearings, as advertised, is to help AMS decide whether or not a national marketing agreement for leafy greens is worth pursuing. If it gives the green light, then the industry will establish advisory committees and review boards and start putting together the nuts and bolts of the agreement, including the list of practices required of participants. So now is the time for public comment — anyone who shows up to testify is allowed to offer their opinion for the record.
But how many people actually will? These hearings are formal, meaning that they’re overseen by an administrative law judge. Anyone who shows up to comment – everyone from a small organic farmer, to an ag econ professor, to the owner of the world’s largest leafy-greens operation – can be cross-examined by anyone else in the room.
That sounded intimidating. On Tuesday morning, I headed in to see what this was all about.
Act One, Scene One:
A witness stand and the judge sit in the middle of the stage, with a panel of six USDA personnel to one side. To the other, four members of the “proponent group” – represented by a vice president and two lawyers from the industry group Western Growers and the head of California’s LGMA — ready their notes. Witnesses wait to be called, give testimony, and be cross-examined.