This is the third in a series about the USDA hearings on an industry proposal for a food-safety marketing agreement for leafy green vegetables. My first post describes what marketing agreements are and do; my second covers the first day of testimony, which was dominated by industry supporters of the agreement.
It's Wednesday morning and I am considering the logistics of a slow-release intravenous whiskey drip. Hearings on the proposal for a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA) were originally scheduled for three days, but thanks to the industry's 31-witness lineup, the judge is thinking of extending them for an extra day. As it is, we will be going strong for 11 hours today, from 8am to 7pm, with similar hours expected tomorrow. Who knew so many things could be said about lettuce?
The industry proponent group is chomping at the bit to get more of their witnesses on today, but the judge (spurred by a savvy lawyer working for the National Organic Coalition) has decided to go quid pro quo: opponents can call some, industry can call some, and random stragglers will be accommodated as they arrive.
A roundup follows of the main points that witnesses present against the proposal for the NLGMA. First, though, bear with me through one general observation:
The purpose of these hearings is to help the USDA's Ag Marketing Service (AMS) decide whether to let big produce buyers move ahead with developing a marketing agreement for food safety. If it goes forward, and if companies around the country sign on, then farmers selling leafy green vegetables like lettuce, spinach and chard to those companies will be required to implement certain "safe food" practices on their farms. Given how diverse our agricultural sector is, one would think that AMS (which, incidentally, runs the National Organic Program) would want to maximize the number and diversity of farmers providing testimony at these hearings.
But not only has AMS chosen to hold the hearings during harvest time, it is holding hearings that are time-intensive and, frankly, extremely intimidating. I'm not saying that I don't think farmers can hold their own up there on the stand. But when the first opponent witness, an experienced lobbyist with the National Organic Coalition, is cross-examined for nearly two hours, I wonder why anyone in their right mind would agree to do this if they were not getting paid. (In this blog post, Elisa Odabashian of Consumers Union describes it as "very different from all of the previous hearings at which I have testified... [it] seemed less like other federal hearings where public input is gathered, and more like a trial of those who disagree with this industry proposal.")
Perhaps more importantly, many farmers in this part of California would be testifying against a proposal that was written by the companies they sell to, with company representatives in the room. So is it really fair to claim that this process gets AMS a sufficient window into "public opinion" of the NLGMA? Please.
That said, on Wednesday morning, a valiant crew shows up to oppose the proposal. Many of them work for nonprofits and get paid to attend these sorts of meetings, but some are farmers or just interested consumers. Major props, y'all.
And here's what they have to say:
Reason #1 AMS should drop the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement: Because AMS is not a food safety agency, and food safety is not a marketing issue.
By its own admission, AMS does not do food safety. Its staff is made up of economists and marketing specialists; its mandate is to facilitate the marketing of U.S. agricultural products. As I described in my first post, marketing agreements usually do just that: they help ensure consistent quality, like lettuce heads that are plump and uniform, tomatoes that are perfectly round, or beef that is heavily marbled. (No comment on whether this particular consumer would actually want such things...) So what is AMS doing getting involved in a marketing agreement that would require its signatories to implement certain "safe food" farming practices, or testing, processing, or shipping protocols, when it has no expertise in this area?
The AMS staff present at the hearing don't seem worried about venturing into uncharted territory — in fact, they seem excited about it. (Incidentally, a new marketing agreement would mean a new AMS program, new funding, and new staff promotions.) When an opposing witness calls AMS out on its lack of food-safety expertise, marketing specialist Melissa Schmaedick, who's leading the government's questioning, asks the witness whether she herself is an expert on marketing agreements. So now only lawyers are fit to have an opinion on this thing?
Because marketing agreements are supposed to ensure the consistent quality of foods, AMS staff seem hell-bent on getting opposing witnesses to admit that food safety is a quality issue in order to establish AMS jurisdiction. "Would you consider food safety to be important to that food's quality?" they ask again and again. Witnesses from consumer groups put up a fight: safety is different. Safety is a bottom line. "Whether or not a product has been grown and processed in a way that minimizes the chance that it contains pathogens that could cause illness is not a quality attribute," says Food & Water Watch's Patty Lovera in her testimony [pdf]. "It is a critical issue that rises above other characteristics like size, variety, or appearance." "Safety should not be something that consumers must search out and possibly pay extra for" (as is the case for, say, USDA prime beef), says Consumers Union's Odabashian (testimony here, pdf).
"But if food is contaminated, would you still say it's quality?" press AMS staff. Argh! Of course not.
Let the record show that they said the safety of food affects its quality.
Reason #2 to drop the NLGMA: Because the industry should not be allowed to write its own food safety rules.
In my last post, I explained how skewed the makeup of the NLGMA's oversight board is toward big industry. CU's Odabashian hits this point hard: "Allowing the leafy green industry to set and oversee its own safety standards, without public input, is undemocratic and contrary to key legal precedents in the regulatory field.... The proposed marketing agreement presently under consideration would allow the leafy green industry to develop its own safety standards virtually all by itself, with only a minor tip of the hat to public input. In terms of product safety, consumers are rarely benefited when industry polices itself." Damn straight.
(A brief diversion: During the testimony of one of the consumer witnesses, someone discovers that the communications director from the industry group Western Growers, which helped author the NLGMA proposal, is trash-Tweeting the opposition from the back of the hearing room. Incidentally, this is the same guy who had dragged a massive binder to the stand on Tuesday as evidence of all the ways he's reaching out to the opposition to bring them into the process so they can help shape the agreement. Good luck with that now, buddy!)
Reason #3 to drop the NLGMA: Because if it looks anything like the California LGMA, it won't work for small, organic, or biodiverse producers.
California already has a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, developed by the same altruistic band of industry folks that's proposing the NLGMA. Witnesses today look at what's happened in California for a sign of (disturbing) things to come if the NLGMA goes forward.
According to the Wild Farm Alliance's Jo Ann Baumgartner (testimony here, pdf), the California agreement blames wild animals for bringing pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 onto farms. Since animals are deemed a risk, wildlife habitat, which the agreement calls "harborage" (drumming up images of camouflage-clad terrorist deer) is a risk too. "USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agencies and nonprofits have invested millions in farm conservation efforts that are now in jeopardy [due to industry food-safety requirements]," says Baumgartner. "Farmers are forced to choose between buyer’s demands and stewardship practices" like vegetation around fields, which, as it happens, has been shown filter pathogens like E. coli out of dust and water. This vegetation also helps attract beneficial insects and pollinators; see Marc's post for more information on why they're so important.
Studies like this one from the CA Department of Fish and Game, says Baumgartner, suggest that wild animals aren't the problem. (The biggest source of E. coli 0157:H7 is cattle, whose manure can leach into surface and groundwater that is then pumped through farms' irrigation lines. Incidentally, the nation's salad bowl is also home to some of its largest dairies and beef feedlots. Just sayin'...)
But due to industry food safety demands, farmers are racing to seal their farms from wild animal intrusion (as if that were actually possible). The director of Monterey Coastkeeper shows photos of bare-ground "buffers" between fields and the Salinas River, of poison bait traps set out for mice and birds, and of the same poison traps submerged in water that drains to the river after a rain. He also mentions during his testimony that an industry rep from Metz Fresh, a company that participates in the California LGMA, threatened him with a lawsuit when he sat down to wait his turn to testify. (Yep, this hearing is definitely welcoming all comers with open arms!)
It's no surprise that these kinds of requirements are difficult or impossible for diversified and organic/sustainable farmers to meet. And honestly, even if they could meet them, would we want them to? "It would be unfortunate and ironic," says Steve Etka of the National Organic Coalition, "if an agreement intended to enhance food safety were to create incentives for farmers to move away from sustainable farming systems, which are designed to reduce toxic loads in the water, soil and air, and to instead promote the use of large scale, monocultural farming systems that we believe to be of higher risk." (Testimony here, pdf.)
Other witnesses worry that if the NLGMA goes through, mainstream access to food from sustainable farms will remain a pipe dream. Instead of complying with rules written by and for Big Ag, small and midsize farms will stop selling to wholesalers and institutions that require compliance with the NLGMA. (See testimony [all pdfs] from Bu Nygrens of the Bay Area distribution company Veritable Vegetable, Garth Kahl from the organic certifier Oregon Tilth, and Josh Hinerfeld from wholesaler Organically Grown Company.)
So long, SOLE?
This last point hits me particularly hard. If we want SOLE food to get beyond niche markets, we need to encourage relationships between sustainable farms and wholesalers, larger retailers, and institutions. These buyers are increasingly requiring assurance (read: documentation at a minimum, often an audit) that the farms they buy from are following practices to reduce the risk that their vegetables will become contaminated. These requirements aren't going away; and groups like those that authored the NLGMA are muscling in to define which farming practices buyers should consider "safe."
The challenge for those of us who care about sustainable farms' survival as well as safe food is to find ways to help all farms provide food safety assurance, but to do so using practices that are in line with their philosophies, production systems, and what the science says about the biggest sources of risk. A number of organizations around the country are already starting to do this kind of outreach and education with sustainable farms, including California's Community Alliance with Family Farmers (whose policy director, Dave Runsten, is slated to testify Thursday); Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; and Virginia's Appalachian Harvest. As a community, we must also broaden the public focus to include food safety threats like industrial livestock operations, chemical pesticide manufacturers, and a government that has allowed a few enormous companies to control most of our food supply.
It's clear that the good-food community needs to engage on the issue of food safety. Unless we're content to let sustainable food remain a niche industry, we can't keep insisting that buyers take it on faith that small equals safe, even though the vast majority of outbreaks are linked to the industrial food supply. But it's also clear that this proposal -- an industry-led agreement overseen by an agency that wants to market safety like it markets perfectly round, red, and tasteless tomatoes -- has the least potential of any policy process to integrate the perspectives and realities of sustainable farms, not to mention those of independent scientists. That's why our first step must be to stop it in its tracks.
Hearings on the NLGMA will continue through October 22nd; see this site for a list of locations and times, and show up to voice your concerns if you can. After they've concluded, AMS will decide whether or not to let the industry start developing the agreement. If it comes to that, there will be a number of opportunities to influence the process over the next year or so, and I'll be back with updates. But for everyone's sake, I really hope I won't be.