ONTARIO, Ore. — U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials are taking a hard second look at the water quality standards in the agency’s final produce safety rule.
Nobody knows for sure whether they will change them significantly or leave them alone, Idaho and Oregon officials following the issue told Capital Press.
But with compliance dates to meet those standards approaching, farmers who grow produce covered by the water standards should be preparing to meet them, officials are telling producers.
Idaho State Department of Agriculture Chief of Staff Pamm Juker said FDA is re-evaluating the water component of the produce safety rule, which covers fruits and vegetables that are consumed raw.
But, she added, “At this point we have to take into consideration what the rule says right now.”
The standards apply to any agricultural water that is expected to come in contact with the produce. Impacted farmers will have to develop a water quality profile for each source of water that contacts the produce.
To create a water quality profile, a farm will need to take 20 samples over two years as close to harvest as possible. They will need to take five samples every year after that and maintain a rolling average of the most recent 20 samples.
An app that will allow growers to enter the results of their water tests and then calculate the information for them is being developed, said Stuart Reitz, an Oregon State University Extension cropping systems agent.
“We will get that information out to you,” he told several hundred Idaho and Oregon onion growers recently during their annual meeting.
Large farms — those with more than $500,0000 in average annual produce sales during the previous three years — have to begin complying with the produce safety rule provisions, other than the water quality standards, in January 2018. They must comply with the water quality standards starting in January 2020.
That means those farms should start collecting water samples this year.
Small farms — $250,000 to $500,000 in average annual produce sales — have to comply with the produce rule provisions beginning in January 2019 and the water quality provisions in January 2021.
Very small farms — $25,000 to $250,000 in sales — have to comply with the rule’s provisions starting in January 2020 and the water quality provisions in January 2022.
In the Treasure Valley of Idaho and Oregon, field configurations and the complexity of irrigation systems could mean individual farms need to establish a significant number of separate water quality profiles, Reitz said.
That will involve money, time and headaches since the tests are supposed to be collected as close to harvest time as possible, he said.
But Reitz said researchers are trying to make the case to FDA for a region-wide monitoring program that allows farmers to share test results.
“We’re trying to figure out some ways to economize the whole process ... so it involves minimum time and expense for individual growers,” he said.