Tuesday May 3, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Organic produce advocates are arguing against a proposed U.S Department of Agriculture agreement they say favors large agri-business and could confuse national organic standards.

USDA last week released a proposed leafy green marketing agreement that the federal agency says will help leafy green growers meet food safety standards.

The agriculture agency wants to set up a national board with representatives from eight regions.

The board would help develop a voluntary program for farmers and handlers to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks like the ones traced to spinach and lettuce supplies over the past few years.

Dave Rogers, policy advisor for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said the proposed marketing agreement would likely be weighted toward large growers.

He also said if a label is developed, consumers could be led to believe that the produce is safer and healthier, when in fact it might not meet organic standards.

"There is an implication that this is a food safety issue, but we are concerned that large growers and handlers will use this as a marketing tool when in fact the produce might not be any safer," Rogers said. "It will become a major advantage to the larger growers who will probably be the ones who control it."

USDA, at this point, is collecting public comments on the proposed voluntary National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.


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The 26-member board would be made up of 12 handlers and 10 farmers, at least two of which must be small farmers.

The board will also have one importer, one retailer, one food service representative and one member of the public.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the department hopes to have a broad representation on the board from across the country.

"We are striving to create a voluntary program so that all types of farmers and handlers can more effectively comply with quality and food safety requirements," said Merrigan.

Steve Etka, legislative director of the National Organic Coalition, said the marketplace agreement would give false assurances to consumers and create a bias toward chemical farming practices.

He said the National Organic Coalition was deeply disappointed that USDA was moving forward after talking about the agreement for two years.

"We agree with the need to address food safety issues, but attempting to address the issue through these means is taking the wrong avenue," he said. "We have seen proponents of this measure hold it up as a solution to food safety concerns. Yet, in states with agreements that served as the model for this proposal, they have actually made matters worse."

Even with small farmers on the board, Etka said the power would be held by large commercial growers.

He said it is the Food and Drug Administration, and not USDA, that has authority over food safety, and the agreement would create confusion and be misleading.

"Why do this, unless the goal is to give the large, conventional handlers more control over the food safety standard writing process?" Etka said. "That's not in the best interests of consumers or farmers."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311ext. 279 or at hwtisman@reformer.com.