Opposition to the Food and Drug Administration's proposed produce safety rule has been led by the Idaho-Oregon onion industry and FDA officials' recent visit to the Pacific Northwest centered around that sector.
But onions are only one of an estimated 200 commodities that would have to meet the proposed standards, which include limits on how much bacteria could be detected in irrigation water.
Onion farmers say surface irrigation water in the region could never meet the standards, which apply to any produce that could be consumed raw. Irrigation water that doesn't meet the standards cannot be used.
Concern about the rule has primarily focused on the Idaho-Oregon onion industry, said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation representative Dennis Tanikuni.
However, he said there should be equal concern about how the rule would impact other and especially smaller segments of the agricultural industry, and not just in the Pacific Northwest.
"In reality, the proposed water quality rules are a threat to any surface irrigator growing a non-exempt crop anywhere in the United States which utilizes an irrigation system similar to those we have here in southern Idaho," said Tanikuni, IFBF's assistant director of governmental affairs.
During a recent five-day tour of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, FDA officials told farmers they could establish alternative practices or standards than those proposed if they can provide adequate scientific data or other information that shows they provide the same level of public health protection.
The onion industry is well-organized on the issue but there are many more small crops that do not have the organization or money necessary to establish alternative practices, Oregon farmer Bill Johnson told FDA officials Aug. 12 during a listening session in Ontario, Ore.
As an example, Johnson pointed to radish seed, which could be used as a seed on salads.
"I worry because there's not much of a radish seed industry," he said. "How does a small industry fund scientific studies to create an alternative?"
Samir Assar, director of FDA's produce safety staff, told Johnson the agency is engaged with a variety of groups and institutions on the issue and has dedicated millions of dollars to foster research to answer questions about alternative practices.
Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould said it's possible specialty crop grant funds could be used to help fund the necessary research and told Johnson the department would work with smaller crops on the issue.
"Let us know who you are and we will try to work with you on those types of projects," she said.
FDA has extended the public comment period on the rule 60 days to Nov. 15. For more information about the proposed rule online, visit