We have commented before on this page that we have major concerns about the new Food Safety Modernization Act, the regulations for which are currently in the comment period.
One concern was that all food producers and processors will not be covered. Small farmers -- those who sell less than $25,000 in crops -- are exempt. We can certainly understand wanting to relieve small producers from the mighty burdens that are about to be heaped on their larger cousins, but we also understand that foodborne illnesses do not discriminate among farms based on the amount of money they generate.
In point of fact, we believe that the regulations should not place an undue burden on any farmers, large or small.
A far bigger concern is the possibility that some of the regulations -- specifically those pertaining to surface water irrigation -- could put some growers out of business. The regulations target growers whose produce can be eaten without cooking. This includes 200 crops and includes many fruits and vegetables.
However, it is especially troublesome for onion growers in Oregon and Idaho, where no foodborne illnesses have been linked to that crop.
Onion growers have expressed deep concerns about the new regulations.
"This is huge. We are scared to death," Craig Froerer, manager of Owyhee Produce's farming operations, told us. "To me, this issue has the potential to be the most detrimental to agriculture since I started farming here in 1978. Because if this goes into place, it changes the whole world we live in."
Onions will no longer be grown in that region, he and other growers said, because the surface water they use to irrigate their crops cannot meet the standards set by the new regulations.
Onions are big business in the Snake River Valley, where about 25 percent of the nation's big-bulb onions are grown on 20,000 acres. While the annual farm gate value of the onions is about $122 million, the total economic impact on the region is estimated to be $1.3 billion.
The regulations also have the unintended consequence of giving a huge advantage to their competitors, onion growers who use well water for irrigation that can easily meet the water standards. If one group of growers has to monitor and treat its irrigation water and the other group doesn't, the government is picking economic winners and losers.
As is often the case with government, the promulgation of regulations for a new law starts as a straightforward exercise. But over time, layer after layer of regulation is added until the law is shrouded in possibilities, potentials and what-ifs. These what-ifs will damage an entire region's economy.
We perfectly understand the Food and Drug Administration's efforts to "get it right" on the new FSMA regulations. The impetus of the law is unique in that it attempts to head off future outbreaks of foodborne illness -- even where none has occurred in the past.
In the case of the onion growers in Oregon and Idaho, the new regulations would not only giving competing growers an advantage, they could very well force many growers out of business.
When it comes to unintended consequences, this is one is a killer.