By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- The Food and Drug Administration has announced it will expand its outreach effort to farmers to address questions relating to the agency's proposed produce safety rules.
The agency's outreach effort will focus on key parts of the rules, such as a requirement that would govern how much bacteria can be present in agricultural water.
The announcement comes shortly after Idaho and Oregon onion growers began voicing significant concern about the proposed agricultural water quality rule.
"I think it's an indication ... the concern growers have been expressing is on their radar screen," said Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko. "Now the question is how to fix it."
Onion farmers in Idaho and Oregon say the surface water they rely on for irrigation cannot meet the proposed new standards and the agricultural water quality rule could put them out of business if adopted as currently written.
IWUA is working with other Idaho and Oregon farm groups to prepare detailed comments about the proposed rules that will be submitted to the FDA before the Sept. 16 commend period deadline.
Farmers' concerns were relayed to top FDA officials by Oregon, Idaho and other congressmen July 10 during a meeting in Washington, D.C. The FDA's announcement that it would expand its outreach effort and issue several new publications dealing with the issue came five days after that meeting.
"This is exactly why we had that meeting, in hopes FDA would increase communications with farmers who actually have to implement this rule and listen to their concerns," said Andrew Malcom, communications director for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who set up the meeting.
To help clarify the agricultural water quality standards, the FDA has created a new "Resources for Farmers" section on a web page dealing with the proposed rules: www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/ucm334114.htm
The site already includes four new materials dealing with the proposal. One is a question-and-answer interview with Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine and the top agency official present at the July 10 meeting.
In the interview, Taylor says the agency wants farmers to know that "we are committed to developing, with their input, a final rule that prevents illnesses but that also is practical and adaptable to a wide diversity of growing conditions and practices."
After reading through all of the new material dealing with the proposed rules, Semanko said he's not convinced FDA knows how to fix it yet.
The outreach effort and FDA officials' planned visit to Idaho and Oregon next month to hear directly from farmers is welcome news, Semanko said.
"It won't be truly good news until we see them change that standard or dump it," he added. "I think it's a good sign they're listening but listening and doing are two different things."
Comments about the proposed rules can be submitted online at: www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=FDA-2011-N-0921-0087