December 3, 2007
RE: HANDLING REGULATIONS FOR LEAFY GREENS UNDER THE AGRICULTURAL MARKETING AGREEMENT ACT OF 1937 (7 CFR Part 962, Docket No. AMS-FV-07-0900; FV07-962-1 AN)
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is a 1600-member North American business association serving all sectors of the organic products industry. OTA thanks AMS for this opportunity to comment.
On behalf of the fastest growing segment of the fresh produce industry, OTA supports the concept of a voluntary marketing agreement for leafy greens in order to reduce the risk of pathogenic contamination of such commodities, as discussed in AMS's advance notice of proposed rulemaking. Our responses to the Agency request for information are as follows:
(1) Would the handling of leafy greens be better addressed though regulations under a voluntary marketing agreement signed by handlers, or under a mandatory marketing order regulating handlers and approved by a producer referendum?
We would support a voluntary marketing agreement signed by handlers, as opposed to a mandatory marketing order regulating handlers and approved by a producer referendum.
(2) - (5) Would such a program be better implemented on a national or a regional basis? How should committee representation be allocated? How should regulations differ by region? (Summary of related questions)
We would support a national standard that is applied consistently from region to region, but that could be implemented through regional committees. We do not believe that the requirements should differ by region, so long as the standards are based on required performance measures as opposed to prescribing production and handling practices that must be implemented - and which may differ by region.
We suggest that each regional committee include, in addition to geographic representation, representatives who practice diverse production methods, including strong representation by producers of organic leafy greens.
(6) What specific problems or issues should be addressed by such a marketing program?
OTA has two primary concerns about such a marketing program: First, it should not impose any requirements that would conflict with National Organic Program regulations or the requirements of the underlying statute, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, particularly with respect to use of disinfectant substances. Second, it should not prescribe practices that would lead to reduced biodiversity on participating farms, such as elimination of hedgerows and reduction of soil microbial populations. Evidence suggests that maintaining a diverse population of soil organisms is an effective means of keeping potential human pathogens in check.
(7) Would Best Practices based upon FDA guidelines be the best criteria for regulation of leafy green handling, or are there other criteria available that might better meet the industry's needs?
We strongly urge that such a program be based on performance standards, using objective metrics for outcomes such as routine microbiological monitoring. While such testing protocols would not be part of the organic practices, organic producers meet food safety requirements in addition to meeting National Organic Program standards, and could perform reasonable monitoring in addition to the documentation required under the NOP. AMS could provide oversight for such a quality monitoring regime based on the model of its own Qualified Through Verification Program, including auditing of Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP).
(8) Which specific leafy green commodities should be included under the program's handling regulations?
We suggest that this program be limited to leafy green commodities that are prepared and sold in a form intended to be consumed in the same condition, for instance without additional cooking, by the final consumer. For example, fresh cut salad mix should be covered, but not greens that are commonly cooked such as kale or swiss chard.
(9) What are potential obstacles to the implementation of such a marketing program? For example, would distance make it impractical for the committee to meet frequently? Might regional subcommittees be appointed to meet more frequently and consider local matters for presentation at annual national committee meetings?
We do not know of specific obstacles to implementation, such as those suggested in the docket.
(10) What are the potential costs associated with the implementation of such a program, including changes to current production and handling procedures, assessments, and audits?
Such a program would clearly incur costs to producers, including additional employee time, costs of monitoring, and audits. We would urge AMS to minimize such costs wherever possible, for example by requiring less expensive routine microbiological monitoring methods, and by use of risk based protocols that permit initial screening followed by more intensive testing if indicated. We also suggest that funding be sought for technical assistance to producers to gain knowledge about compliance with such a program, as well as education for producers in improved production methods. (Such training has been offered when other programs have been implemented by USDA.)
(11) How would a marketing program complement, duplicate, or conflict with any other existing programs, such as state food safety regulations?
In addition to remaining consistent with the NOP, such a program would also be consistent with GMPs and GAPs, HACCP, Federal procurement requirements, and federal, state and private food safety programs.
(12) Are there other issues and/or suggestions about such a marketing program?
One serious issue that should be considered is the question of imported leafy green products. We believe that a significant volume of such products could enter the U.S. from both Canada and Mexico, which could potentially put domestic producers at a disadvantage if they have to meet standards that are not required of foreign competitors.
OTA notes that the National Organic Program is the only instance in federal law or regulation where the use of manure is regulated. Stringent rules govern the application of uncomposted manure to land used to produce organic crops, and leafy greens cannot be harvested less than 120 days after an application of uncomposted manure. Requirements for composted manures provide additional pathogen reduction measures. We suggest that compliance with the NOP with regard to use of animal manure, combined with a microbiological monitoring program for preharvest produce, is sufficient to assure consumers of the safety of ready to eat leafy greens.
OTA appreciates the opportunity to comment on this proposed rulemaking, and supports the effort to ensure the safety of this segment of the food supply.