Since Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 farmers and processors have cast a wary eye on the Food and Drug Administration as it has written the required regulations.
The idea behind the law and the new regulations is to mandate some best safety practices for producers and processors, and to make it easier for regulators to trace foodborne illnesses back to their source.
It's hard to argue with food safety in the broad strokes. But like most things passed by Congress, it's the details that can be the problem. Such is the case with the agriculture water provisions now under consideration.
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 surface irrigation water weekly during the growing season.
If the sample surpasses a certain threshold for bacteria, the farmer could not use the water. There is currently no process to obtain an Environmental Protection Agency permit to treat the water, and if there were the cost would be prohibitively expensive.
The rule is particularly worrisome to onion growers in Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho, the source of about 25 percent of the bulb onions consumed in the United States. Onions add $1.3 billion to the region's economy.
They say it's doubtful that any surface water in the region meets the standard, and pumping groundwater is too expensive. Adoption of the rules would likely force them to grow other crops not covered by the regulation.
Apple and cherry growers in Washington and Oregon have similar concerns, and fewer options should their water fail to make the grade.
Like all rules associated with the Food Safety Modernization Act, growers who sell less than $25,000 in crops annually and some who sell mostly directly to consumers or local restaurants would be exempt -- even if they use the same water as higher volume growers who are covered.
The proposed rules allow farmers to propose using alternative protocols to achieve the same results if it can be scientifically shown that they are at least as effective as the FDA rules in controlling microbial bacteria levels. What that might be is anyone's guess at this point.
Members of the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation have persuaded FDA officials to work with growers to address those concerns. They also agreed to travel to Idaho and Oregon to hear directly from farmers.
We hope workable alternatives can be found.
From the start we've said what is needed are scale-appropriate rules that provide a realistic level of consumer protection. Those rules should not make large-scale commercial production of fruits and vegetables so expensive as to
drive producers out of business, or force them to scale down to the point of being exempt.