By SEAN ELLIS
WASHINGTON -- Idaho and Oregon farmers' concerns about proposed new agricultural water quality rules got an airing on Capitol Hill today.
During a July 10 meeting with top FDA officials, six U.S. congressmen relayed concerns from onion and fruit growers about the negative impact the agency's proposed rules could have on farmers.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who set up the meeting, said Food and Drug Administration officials agreed to work with growers to address those concerns. They also agreed to travel to Idaho and Oregon next month to hear directly from farmers.
"They were very open to hearing our concerns," Walden said.
Snake River Produce Manager Kay Riley, who is helping lead the onion industry's effort to counter the rules, said he welcomed the FDA's visit so onion growers can "let them see first-hand the conditions we face."
The FDA has proposed food safety rules that would govern how much bacteria can be in agricultural water. The rules would require any farmer who grows fresh produce that can be consumed raw to test the water weekly during growing season.
If the water surpasses a certain threshold for bacteria, the farmer could not use the water, and there is currently no process to obtain an Environmental Protection Agency permit to treat the water.
Walden pressed for the face-to-face meeting with FDA officials after he met with Riley and other onion industry leaders in Nyssa, Ore., June 21. Growers showed Walden first-hand how the proposed rules could affect their industry.
"They impressed upon me the problem we face in the Treasure Valley if these rules get written inappropriately," Walden said. "We want common-sense food safety regulations, not regulations that shut down agriculture."
Walden said he has heard similar concerns from apple and cherry growers in the Columbia Gorge.
Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko told onion growers July 10 that surface water supplies in the area cannot meet the proposed standards.
FDA's proposed agricultural water standards are the same as those for recreational water, he told growers during the Oregon State University Ontario research station's annual field day.
"I don't think FDA understands we don't deliver swimming pool quality water in our canals," he said.
He said farmers and those in the water delivery business will work together to submit joint comments on the proposal "so FDA understands all they are going to do is put a major segment of agriculture out of business."
"We're going to tell ... FDA why this rule will not work," he added. "The rule can't work because the standards cannot be met."
The meeting was led by Walden and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and included five top FDA officials, including Mike Taylor, the agency's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
It also included Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees FDA.