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Onion growers happy FDA will change water rules

Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Idaho and Oregon onion farmers are happy that FDA officials will significantly alter some of their proposed new food safety rules, including one that would require weekly water testing.

Members of the Idaho-eastern Oregon onion industry applauded the FDA’s decision to significantly alter some of its proposed food safety rules and give people another chance to comment on the changes.

“I think it’s terrific news,” said Snake River Produce Manager Kay Riley, who has helped lead the onion industry’s opposition to a proposed rule that would create strict water testing requirements for farmers.

“I’ve heard there will be major changes in at least the water testing provision and plus there will be a second comment period,” he added. “I think both of those things will be good.”

The proposed rules, released in January, set safety standards for the produce industry and food facilities.

Farmers are particularly concerned about a weekly testing requirement for all agricultural water. If coliform bacteria levels exceed a certain standard, producers must stop using the water.

Idaho, Oregon and Washington farmers say virtually no ditch irrigation water in the region can meet those standards.

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency heard from a large number of farmers, researchers and industry leaders from around the country who were concerned the rules would place an undue burden on farmers while doing very little to make food safer.

He said FDA responded with an unprecedented outreach effort that included attending more than 150 meetings and visiting numerous farms in nearly 20 states from Maine to California. The agency also extended the public comment period three times.

Based on the discussions FDA personnel had with farmers, researchers and others, “we have learned a great deal and our thinking has evolved,” Taylor wrote in a Dec. 19 statement that announced the agency’s decision.

In order to make the standards practical to implement, “we believe that significant changes will be needed in key provisions of the (rules),” he said. “These provisions include water quality standards….”

Taylor said the FDA plans to publish revised rule language by early summer 2014 and will accept additional public comments on those parts of the proposed rules that have been changed.

FDA is under a court order to finalize the rules by June 2015.

Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko called the FDA’s announcement a huge win for the grower and water user community.

“FDA has formally acknowledged that the proposed produce rule, specifically the irrigation water rule that growers are so concerned about, is not going to work and they have to do something different,” said Semanko, who worked with the onion industry and other farm groups to submit comments on the proposal.

While it’s a victory for farmers, Riley said, producers also need to stay on top of the issue and keep a close eye on the revised language that FDA issues next year.

“We anticipate it will be beneficial but we won’t know for sure until we see what they propose,” he said. “I think it’s important we continue our efforts and not assume all is well.”


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