Don’t regulate onion growers to death

Once again, science counters assumptions on food safety.

Our View

Published on July 31, 2014 2:12PM

When Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, it had no idea the new law would back farmers up against a regulatory wall. Yet, in some cases, that is exactly what has happened.

Bulb onion growers, many of whom farm in Idaho and Oregon, know that only too well. They have been forced to prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the irrigation water they use does not cause their onions to carry E. coli, which can cause illness if ingested.

Despite the fact that E. coli had never been a problem in bulb onions — some have been tested for years at the behest of customers — the FDA’s regulation writers decided on their own to require irrigation water to meet certain quality standards. Treating irrigation water would be hugely expensive — enough to put some growers out of business.

Scientists at Oregon State University were asked to find out whether the FDA was just being prudent with its proposals or providing a solution where no problem existed.

The research continues, but so far it shows that E. coli is not a problem in onions. If current research is backed up by larger-scale experiments that are underway, the FDA says it will back away from its water quality requirements.

When they do that, they should also revisit their requirements that onion growers replace their wooden bins with plastic ones — at an estimated cost of $200 million. No problems have been reported with the current wooden bins, but researchers found contamination problems with the new plastic ones. Yet the FDA is ordering a step backward in food safety.

Were it not for one fact, this would be an interesting topic for a debate. That fact: The livelihoods of hundreds of onion farmers and thousands of their workers hang in the balance.

We have no idea why the FDA ever assumed there was a problem with onions. The fact that onion growers were included despite a spotless food safety record makes us wonder what the agency’s best and brightest were thinking.

We’ve grown weary of such excessive regulations spewing forth from Washington, D.C., whether they involve food safety, the environment — and even whether mothers can buy a potato for their kids using a WIC coupon.

Good grief. So many truly profound issues face our nation and the world. The Middle East is in full meltdown, our military remains in Afghanistan after 13 years — 13 years! — and the people in Washington D.C. have nothing better to do than pester farmers over nonexistent problems.

We have no problem addressing problems that exist, but creating rules for the sake of rules, as the FDA is doing, makes the agency look foolish and untrustworthy.

Here’s a suggestion. The FDA folks should go to a grocery store and buy an onion. Better yet, they should buy a hundred onions. Or just to be safe, they should buy a hundred truckloads of onions. If they find any E. coli in those onions they should try to figure out where it came from and why. Then they should write a regulation specific to the problem.

Until then, they should leave onion growers alone.


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