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Research says bulb onions pose no E. coli risk

Sean Ellis
Dry bulb onions grown in Idaho and eastern Oregon pose no risk of E. coli contamination, according to Oregon State University research.

ONTARIO, Ore. — Research by an Oregon State University scientist shows there is no risk of E. coli contamination from dry bulb onions.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., will carry the results of that research with him when he meets with top Food and Drug Administration officials Nov. 13 to try to convince them to alter their proposed new quality standards for agricultural water.

The research by Clint Shock, director of OSU’s Malheur experiment station near Ontario, was conducted after FDA released proposed new food safety standards for produce farms.

Any farmer who grows produce that could be eaten raw has to meet the new standards, which include limits on how much E. coli bacteria can be present in irrigation water.

Onion growers in Idaho and eastern Oregon say the surface water they use to irrigate their crop cannot meet the standards.

Walden met with onion industry leaders Nov. 7 at the Malheur research station to discuss the results of Shock’s research and prepare him for his meeting with FDA officials.

Shock monitored E. coli levels in both drip and furrow irrigated onion fields from the point the water first entered the field. He monitored levels again when the onions were first lifted out of the ground and then again after they were cured in the field and ready for storage.

“After curing, there is no evidence of E. coli being present on onions, regardless of the source of water or whether a drip or furrow system was used,” said OSU researcher Stuart Reitz.

“It’s clear Clint’s work is going to be extraordinarily helpful,” Walden said after being briefed on the results. “This evidence-based research really helps as we push back.”

Growers in Idaho and eastern Oregon grow about 25 percent of the nation’s dry bulb onion supply. Onions have been grown in the area for 100 years without a single case of E. coli contamination being traced to that crop.

“You have 100 years of industry science behind you,” Walden told onion growers. “Every single onion that has come out of here in the last 100 years has been without E. coli contamination. How many more samples do you need than that?”

Walden and six other congressmen sent a letter to the leaders of the farm bill conference committee asking them to include language that requires FDA to conduct a scientific review and economic analysis of its proposed food safety regulations before they go into effect.

The onion industry is trying to get FDA to alter its proposed water quality rule but some people want the rule tossed altogether.

“Let’s get it thrown out,” said Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association.

Others are worried it could severely impact the bulb onion industry in this country.

“It has the potential to increase the cost of production to the point that it could push production overseas,” said Bob Simerly, an agronomist with McCain Foods, a large purchaser of onions from this region.



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