ONTARIO, Ore. — Research by Oregon State University scientists relating to the Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule is benefiting onion growers.
And onion growers have themselves to thank for that, industry leaders say, because they’re the ones who funded a good portion of the research through their checkoff dollars.
“That has been money well spent, no doubt about it, and I think everybody agrees with that,” said Kay Riley, marketing order chairman for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee. “It wasn’t a hard sell to the (IEOOC) research committee to fund those studies.”
Researchers at OSU’s Malheur County experiment station conducted several trials over the past four years that collectively showed onions are not at risk of being contaminated by irrigation water containing large amounts of bacteria.
Those studies helped FDA change its mind on some of the agricultural water standards originally contained in the produce rule, in a way that benefits bulb onions growers.
Beyond that, the research could also help growers who face industry-required Good Agricultural Practices audits, said OSU Extension cropping systems agent Stuart Reitz.
Many of the 300 onion growers in the Idaho-Oregon onion growing region face GAP audits, and some of them face several other types of audits as well, he said. Those audits require them to show they are growing onions in a safe and sanitary manner.
OSU researchers are starting to get the produce rule-related studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals — one has already been published and another has been submitted for review. That will allow onion growers to incorporate the findings of that research into their GAP audits, Reitz said.
“We’re trying to finish getting some of the studies we’ve done published so we have scientifically valid studies that growers can incorporate into the farm safety plans that GAP audits require,” he said.
Clint Shock, director of the OSU experiment station in Malheur County, said the studies included loading irrigation water with large amounts of bacteria and then tracking E. coli contamination in the field and on onions.
Despite loading the water with bacteria, no traces of E. coli were ever found in an onion, Shock said.
Another study showed that using plastic bins instead of the wooden ones used for decades resulted in no difference in detectable levels of E. coli.
“There is no difference between plastic and wooden bins in terms of food safety,” Reitz said.
That research helped convince FDA to drop a produce rule provision that could have required growers to switch to plastic bins.
There are about 1 million wooden onion bins in the region, and replacing them with plastic bins would have been expensive, said Riley, who is also manager of Snake River Produce.
Plastic bins cost three times as much as wooden bins and hold two-thirds as much onions, he said.