kaleThere are two sides to every story.

I’d like to call your attention to a hot debate sparked by my blog post Corporate-Backed and Bogus: The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.  If you haven’t done so,  read it now to check out  the range of opinions and responses on this important topic.

Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute and her colleagues oppose The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement as it stands.

Charlotte weighed in on comments from a supporter of The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and member of the Western Growers Association, an organization that, according to its website, provides ‘quality services and programs that benefit and enhance the competitiveness of its members in the Arizona and California fresh produce industry.’

Check out the debate for yourself:

Western Growers Association: No one is guaranteeing the safety of anything; however, the program aims t o develop scientifically defensible, regionally-based growing, handling and manufacturing practices – developed by a coalition of stakeholders including government entities, academics and the industry.  These practices have NOT been developed.  This proposal sets up the infrastructure by which a coalition of stakeholders can come to the table and develop those practices. Indeed, there is currently no way of guaranteeing that fresh leafy greens are 100% safe as scientists do not yet have a clear understanding of food borne pathogens on leafy greens.

Cornucopia:   Our main concern is with the “coalition of stakeholders” that would oversee the development and implementation of the rules. Most members on the committee (19 of 23) will be handlers and growers, and 17 of those 19 will likely represent the large-scale, corporate leafy greens industry. The committee members that are not growers or handlers will include a retail industry representative, a food service industry representative, a member of the public and an importer.

There will be a separate committee that will assist the Administrative Committee in developing the rules, which will indeed be required to include academics and government entities, including a National Resource Conservation Service representative and a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is very positive. But ultimately, it is the Administrative Committee that holds the power to make the rules (see section 970.49 of the proposal). Just to reiterate, this Committee will consist of industry representatives with no academics or government representatives.

Western Growers Association: The proposal, as is currently drafted would require that at least two “small” growers participate in the development of these practices.

Cornucopia:  This is a token representation of “small” growers who will not have real power. A two-thirds majority will be needed on important votes, and with 23 members, the two “small” representatives will not be able to influence policy or the outcome of a vote.

Western Growers Association: The “seal” is to be used primarily on bills of lading.  California and Arizona have had a similar program in place for multiple years now; has anyone seen a USDA-approved “seal” on any of the leafy greens in the market?  No.  The seal is used on bills of lading so retailers know that the product in question was handled and grown according to the practices outlined in those state’s agreements.

Cornucopia:  There is currently nothing in the proposal that would prevent signatories from extending the use of this seal beyond bills of lading and manifests.  There is no prohibition against using the seal on packaging visible to the consumer, and it will probably be only a matter of time before the seal is used as a marketing tool. It is, after all, a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Western Growers Association: Regarding transparency, there was an open comment period on the need for USDA to pursue a marketing agreement about a year ago.  There has been a Web site – www.nlgma.com – on-line for about a year calling for stakeholders to provide comments on the proposal.  Many of those comments and suggestions have been added to the proposed agreement.  Furthermore, the proposed NLGMA has been prominently covered on the USDA AMS site.  There was a Webinar where proponents explained the proposal and answered every question offered up by the more than 200 attendees, nationwide (the Webinar along with those questions and answers are available at www.nlgma.com).  A large group of regional, state and national proponents have been communicating this process with their respective constituents for more than a year.  The proponents called for, and USDA granted, a series of public hearings, across the nation, (which are ongoing) to discuss the merits of the proposal.  I am not sure how this process could be more transparent.

Cornucopia: I don’t believe that lack of transparency is a concern listed in the blog post.

Western Growers Association: There are a handful of different “metrics” or standards out there, and many of them are very costly.  The entire industry needs to work toward one set of practices, defensible by sound science, which can replace those “super metrics” being handed down by the buying community.  The National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement would afford stakeholders that opportunity.

Cornucopia:  The problem is that the proposed Marketing Agreement would put the power to develop the metrics in the hands of 23 people, most of whom will be representatives of large-scale handlers and growers. Food safety is a serious issue, and any government regulation for food safety should be done with the citizens’ safety in mind. Industry representatives will be serving two masters—citizens’ need for safe food, and their industry’s interests. The likelihood that the resulting standards will be self-serving to their industry, disregarding the needs of other stakeholders (such as small growers) are much higher than if government agencies, staffed by public servants, were charged with developing the rules.

Western Growers Association:     Lastly, this program is voluntary.  If producers do not want to participate, they do not have to.

Cornucopia: It is voluntary for handlers, but not for growers. If most handlers sign up, growers will be left to choose between following the metrics or not being able to sell their crops unless they find a handler who is not a signatory.

What do you think? Let us know and let’s keep the conversation going!