USDA decision a step forward for leafy green food safety

One of the leading sectors of Western agriculture is the leafy greens vegetable industry which includes more than a dozen crops. About 270,000 acres of lettuce (2009 figures) alone are grown in California’s Salinas Valley and in the low desert regions in southern California and southwestern Arizona.

The total values of the California-Arizona lettuce industries in 2009 topped $2.15 billion. This industry is a job creator and literally feeds the world a nutritious product.

The USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service recently took action to help ensure the continued viability of the leafy green industry across the United States. The agency made the correct decision to endorse the creation of a National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (NLGMA).

The agreement is designed to strengthen nationwide food safety protocols at the farm, processing, and distribution levels – from “food-to-fork.”

Western leafy green growers don’t have to peer too far in the rear view mirror to remember the Escherichia coli(E. Coli)O157:H7 outbreak in fresh spinach in September 2006 traced back to California. The tainted spinach caused four deaths and 276 illnesses in 26 states. An E. coli infection can cause hemorrhagic diarrhea and kidney failure; most often in the elderly and young children.

Estimated losses from the event beyond the tragic human toll included an estimated $100 million financial loss to the leafy greens industry. That was tied to the erosion of consumer confidence in leafy green safety. Consumption fell dramatically impacting sales and production nationwide.

It is impossible to grow vegetables 100 percent safe from E. Coli, salmonella, and other bacteria. Most farm crops are not grown in enclosed structures with solid walls, a floor, and a ceiling to shield the crop from bird droppings and other potential food safety hazards. It is important though that leafy greens, wherever grown, include the latest science-based production and packing practices to minimize the risks.

The E. Coli tragedy served as a wake-up call to the Western leafy greens industry which quickly developed the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The agreement requires adherence to a long list of good agriculture practices throughout the food supply system. A year later, an almost carbon copy agreement was implemented in Arizona.

Nationwide leafy green food safety is about utilizing the best production and handling techniques in each leafy green-growing region. What works in the West may not be the best practice in Texas, Florida, and Ohio, and vice-versa due to different growing conditions and other realities. Still the aim is keep everyone on the same page.

Western agricultural organizations recommended that AMS create the NLGMA. The agency held listening sessions in seven major growing areas.

After weighing the feedback, the AMS correctly decided to move forward with the national proposal. The decision is a smart and decisive move. USDA deserves kudos for making the right decision.

There are differences from the industry’s original NLGMA proposal and the recommendations advanced by AMS. AMS suggests additional grower representatives on the marketing agreement’s board. The new recommendation calls for 10 farmers; two who must represent small farms.

The AMS proposal also calls for more geographical zones (eight total) where leafy green vegetables are grown. The industry recommended five-growing zones which did not best reflect the different climates and production practices, said Rayne Pegg, AMS Administrator.

The next step for the NLGMA is a 90-day comment period. Comments are due by July 28, 2011. If the majority of the comments are favorable, AMS says the marketing agreement would be adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Secretary.

More information on the NLGMA and how to comment are available online at

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