By SEAN ELLIS
A top Food and Drug Administration official is visiting the Pacific Northwest to hear directly from farmers about their concerns regarding the agency's proposed food safety rules for agricultural water.
The rules, which would govern how much bacteria could be in irrigation water, are part of new standards for fresh produce the FDA is proposing to meet the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Many onion farmers in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon say the surface water they rely on cannot meet the new standards and their industry would be put out of business if they pass as written.
Industry leaders of other crops, including fruit growers in Washington, have a similar concern.
"It's certainly a step in the right direction ... that they are getting out of Washington, D.C., and going to the Pacific Northwest to hear from these growers directly," said Andrew Malcom, communications director for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who has pushed the FDA to respond to farmers' concerns.
Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, and FDA produce safety experts, will discuss specific aspects of the rules Aug. 12 from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Ore.
Ontario straddles the Idaho/Oregon border and will be an opportunity for farmers from both states to weigh in on the issue.
The FDA officials will hold another meeting Aug. 14 at the Howard Johnson at 9 N 9th St. in Yakima, Wash., from 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Among the things the FDA officials will discuss is the process for applying for possible exemptions or variances to the standards.
Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce, an onion packing shed in Nyssa, Ore., said the visit is a good start but it will be even better news when the rules are altered or dropped.
"At least there's a dialogue," he said. "It's not good news yet but it's not bad news that they're visiting."
Myers said he and two others from his company will be at the Ontario meeting.
"I'm sure there will be many growers there," he said. "I certainly hope it's a packed house."
The agricultural water rules would apply to any commodity that can be consumed raw and FDA officials say it could impact about 200 crops. Walden and other western congressmen have been at the forefront of an effort to get the agency to alter the rules or drop them.
Malcom said Walden staff members will attend the Ontario meeting and the congressman "will be eager for a status update from the FDA after that meeting."
Registration is free but required. To register online, visit http://foodsafety.wsu.edu/fsma/index.html