Consumers Union is voicing opposition to a proposed national USDA Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, claiming the pact will fail to adequately improve the safety of raw spinach and other salad ingredients.

"We urgently need improvements in the safety of many kinds of food, from spinach and other leafy greens to peanut butter to imported fish," said Elisa Odabashian, Director of Consumers Union's west coast office. "But this USDA Marketing Agreement approach is the wrong way to go about it.

Consumers Union claims the agreement amounts to industry self-regulation, wrapped up in a USDA package, so consumers think the government is insuring that their food is safe. "But," points out Odabashian, "all the safety standards will be developed by the big food processors and other members of the industry. There will be only one consumer member on their Administrative Committee, and that consumer member will be chosen by the food processors."

At issue is whether the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which has set food safety standards for California growers and processors, should be expanded nationally. While the agreement has imposed new safeguards on its participants, it is voluntary.

Growers and processors can choose whether to participate, and CU says that opens the door for unsafe leafy greens to enter the marketplace. Some farmers, environmentalists, and scientists are critical of the agreement because what Consumers Union calls "its damaging impact on the environment."

The publisher of Consumers Reports says it supports stronger Food and Drug Administration regulation of leafy green safety. "The right way to improve the safety of leafy greens is to strengthen FDA's ability to regulate processors," said Odabashian, "so that new stronger government standards are set and enforced through a transparent, open, public process that takes into account the views of consumers, environmental scientists and activists, organic farmers, and sustainable agriculture. FDA's weakness has left a vacuum in food safety."

Congress is currently considering FDA food safety reform. The House of Representatives passed a bill in July that would require the FDA to set new leafy green safety standards, and inspect all high risk food processors -- such as those that bag spinach and leafy greens -- at least once every six to 12 months. Consumers Union supports passage of a companion bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, S.510, in the Senate.

"Industry self-regulation without public input falls far short of what we need to keep contaminated lettuce greens from reaching our tables," said Odabashian. "We should create an open and inclusive process for FDA to implement stronger standards that will keep consumers safe."