The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) last week held the first in a series of formal hearings about the agency's proposed marketing agreement to improve the food safety of leafy greens.
The proposal stems from a deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach, which cast doubt on the adequacy of existing food safety oversight. An article by USDA's Economic Research in 2007 summarized the policy responses that were considered.
The hearings, in Monterey, California, September 22-25, collected public input on the federal government's proposal to create a national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), similar in some respects to a marketing agreement that was adopted in California after the outbreak. Handlers who adopt certain food safety requirements stipulated in the agreement would earn the right to put a seal on the label, a sort of endorsement from USDA much like the "USDA prime" label for a particular grade of beef.
Federal food safety oversight is divided between multiple agencies, most importantly the Food and Drug Administration (in the Department of Health and Human Services), whose jurisdiction includes produce safety, and the Food Safety Inspection Service (in USDA), which oversees mandatory inspections for beef and poultry slaughter. Nevertheless, the marketing agreement would be voluntary for produce handlers and would be overseen by AMS, a USDA marketing agency, instead of either FDA or a food safety agency within USDA.
In the first of a series at Ethicurean, Elanor Starmer notes that marketing agreements usually enforce standards for the size or appearance of a product, not its food safety. She points out that the agreement would be voluntary for produce handlers, but would seem mandatory from the point of view of a farmer who must sell to a handler that participates in the agreement.
The Cornucopia Institute goes further in arguing that organic practices that preserve wildlife could be forbidden under the terms of the agreement, so small-scale organic producers could be prevented from using the proposed USDA seal: "[T]he proposed safety standards, which have been described as a 'corporate-backed marketing ploy,' may give agribusinesses using the new food safety seal a boost and lead many consumers to assume that vegetables from industrial-scale monoculture farms, primarily in California, are safer than the leafy greens available from local growers around the country."
[On a somewhat related topic, here is Carol Tucker-Foreman's recent Huffington Post commentary, saying that small and organic farms have little to fear from a food safety proposal under consideration in Congress].
An early Federal Register notice (.pdf) from AMS emphasizes the contrast between a voluntary marketing agreement and a potentially mandatory marketing order. Many produce handlers prefer the voluntary marketing agreement approach to federal regulation through a food safety agency.