Mythbuster: LGMA Metrics and Organic Production

Outside of the leafy greens industry, there seems to be a common misconception that the rigorous food safety practices required by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement discourage – and even prevent – organic farming. The truth is — when it comes to growing leafy greens, it makes no difference if the product is conventionally-grown or organic, it must be safe for people to eat.

It’s also true that the LGMA’s required food safety practices do nothing to interfere with organic farming. This is primarily because the USDA’s National Organic Program, which determines what kinds of farming practices can be used by organic farmers, is focused on pest management practices rather than on preventing foodborne illness. Meanwhile, the primary purpose of the LGMA is to minimize contamination of leafy greens crops by ensuring science-based food safety practices are being followed on the farm. Many LGMA handlers and farmers produce both conventional and organic leafy greens. Those who do are able to meet the rigorous standards required for certification under the LGMA and those of the National Organic Program.

Tom Nunes, Jr.’s family business grows and sells both conventional and organic produce under the Foxy brand and is a certified LGMA handler. Tom had this to say about complying with the LGMA food safety requirements:

“We’ve had no challenges whatsoever in producing organically-grown lettuces, kale and chard under the LGMA system and have been able to adjust our operating procedures to follow both the LGMA rules and those of the National Organic Program. The practices we use for both are virtually identical when it comes to training workers in good hygiene practices or providing sanitary restroom and hand-washing facilities. Our organically-farmed fields are definitely restricted from using some of the pest control treatments that conventional farms have access to. But many of these non-chemical treatments are now used on the conventionally-grown side too, which has allowed us to reduce our overall use of pesticides.”

The LGMA food safety program was developed so all producers, whether they farm conventionally, organically or both, can adapt their farming methods to meet the required food safety standards. Under the LGMA, each handler is required to conduct a thorough risk assessment and to develop a set of Standard Operating Procedures that follow LGMA required food safety practices. Government audits verify handlers that are adhering to SOPs that meet the LGMA standards. As long as producers are meeting the LGMA food safety standards and appropriate documentation is provided, it makes no difference if conventional or organic farming methods are used.

Lakeside Organic Gardens, another LGMA handler-member, produces 45 organic vegetables year-round, including leafy greens. Lindsey Roberts, Marketing Communications for Lakeside Organic Gardens provides this comment about her company’s experience in adhering to the LGMA metrics:

“At Lakeside we’re no strangers to documentation. We adhere to the requirements of rigorous audits to achieve our organic certification. Over the years we’ve found ways to control pests like rodents using non-chemical methods. Being organic, we do our best to balance Mother Nature and food safety. One example is placing owl-nesting boxes on the outskirts of our fields to attract owls, which are a natural predator of rodents. When it comes to birds, we do our best to keep them out the fields by preserving nearby native vegetation which is more attractive to birds than leafy greens.”

Most of the time there are no issues with practices used by organic farmers, but when it comes to the application of soil amendments, some organic practices are not allowed by the LGMA. However, farmers can still grow organic-certified leafy greens under the LGMA by adapting their practices to meet the LGMA standards. So, while our metrics do not allow raw or partially-composted manure or bio-solid fertilizers to be applied to leafy green crops, we recognize the fact that organic farmers cannot use synthetic fertilizers. The LGMA metrics allow for the use of fully composted fertilizers, which are also approved for organic farming, as long as the handler provides documentation that the compost has been properly processed and tested by an accredited laboratory to be sure it’s free of pathogens like E.coli 0157:H7 and salmonella.

Todd Brendlin, farming manager for Grimmway Farm’s Cal-Organic Farms division, provides the following example:

It’s a common practice among organic leafy greens farmers to use chicken pellets to fertilize fields. The LGMA Metrics allow this practice as long as documentation is provided to validate the pellets have been processed to remove pathogens. The required documentation for compost fertilizers under the organic standards program is very similar to what is required by the LGMA. Therefore, very few adjustments have been necessary to comply with the LGMA standards.

Perhaps it is Todd who sums things up best:

“I know that some people have expressed concerns that LGMA food safety audits try to force growers to destroy natural habitats and adopt a scorched-earth policy, but we have not seen or experienced this.”

In fact, the LGMA Board has adopted a policy that encourages “co-management” that strives to conserve soil, water, air, wildlife, and other natural resources while simultaneously minimizing microbiological hazards associated with food production. In addition, the LGMA program has been applauded by environmental advocacy groups such as the Nature Conservancy for its approach to food safety that considers food health, wildlife health, and water health as parts of an integrated system.

We sincerely hope this perception about the LGMA and organic farming will change. Since the inception of the LGMA in 2007, the volume of organic products, including leafy greens, has continued to grow. Our goal is to make sure they are farmed in safe manner so consumers can eat them with confidence. We believe this is the right thing to do – for everyone.

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