Farmers Concerned About New Federal Guidelines

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(Host) Eating green vegetables has long been seen as a formula for staying healthy. But a few years back, contamination traced to packaged spinach caused hundreds of illnesses and even some deaths around the country.

And experts say illnesses from leafy greens have been on the rise. So why are some Vermont farmers opposed to a federal plan that’s being developed to promote the safe handling of greens?

VPR’s Susan Keese has this report.

(Watering, shovel sounds)

(Keese) Spring is a busy time at Clear Brook Farm and farmstand in Shaftsbury.

(Woman) "So,  five vegetables."

(Keese) Owner Andy Knafel’s organic spinach and salad greens are still growing in the fields beyond his stand. But when they’re ready, he can count on lots of eager customers.

Knafel says food scares in the news have helped increase the demand for locally grown produce.  

Now he worries that the Agriculture Department’s proposed "National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement" is really a P.R. move to help big farms to win back market share.

(Knafel) "Because the ‘buy local’ thing is, you go up and you shake your farmer’s hand, there’s a trust that’s built there. Where if your farmer is 20 farms all sending to a packing facility 2,000 miles away, you don’t know those people."

(Keese) The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, or NOFA, and its national parent group are taking a similar stand.

NOFA-VT spokesman Dave Rogers says the recent outbreaks have mainly come from pre-washed, packaged salad mixes produced by very large farms, sometimes multiple farms, out west.

(Rogers) "So we’re concerned that whatever standards they come up with are not going to give proper consideration to organic standards and the needs of small growers."

(Keese) And the needs are different. Standards already in place in western states — like banning composted manure or keeping fields sterile and uniform — are directly opposed to organic practices.

Congress did pass a new food safety act this year. Rogers says NOFA, the organic group, worked hard with Congress and the FDA, to win exceptions, and a voice for small and organic farms.

The proposed Leafy Green Marketing Agreement is the effort of another federal agency — the U.S.D.A.’s agricultural marketing service. Bob Keeney is the agency’s deputy director.

(Keeney) "After the spinach incident several years ago the leafy green industry from throughout the country, submitted a proposal to us that required handlers to only source from growers who had implemented good agricultural practices."

(Keese) Keeney says many of the details have yet to be worked out, but the program if adopted, would be voluntary.

The proposal is on the USDA website, and the agency will be taking comments and suggestions through the end of July.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Manchester.

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