Farmers await specifics on FDA rule rewrite

An onion field near Nyssa, Ore., is irrigated with surface water May 21. Onion industry officials in Idaho and Oregon say most surface water will not meet new standards for microbial bacteria being proposed as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The Food and Drug Administration visited farms and packing sheds throughout the Pacific Northwest earlier this month to get a first-hand idea of how proposed food safety rules might impact fruit and vegetable growers.

At the end of their tour FDA officials said they’d make changes to rules many growers say could either put them out of business, or drastically change the nature of their farming operations. Typical of almost every official -- elected or appointed -- who ventures out from D.C., they were polite, they were concerned, and they offered no specifics as to how they would solve a problem of their own making.

We think growers and packers would do well to wait for details before they breath easier.

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in December 2010, giving the FDA a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, prevention-based rules to reduce food-borne illness. The FDA’s proposed rules take aim at practices throughout the food supply chain.

The FDA has said it focused on farm practices that are most likely to cause food-borne illness. Of major concern to growers in the PNW are rules regulating ag water used to grow fruit and vegetables that are meant to be eaten raw. That includes herbs, tomatoes, leafy greens, sprouts, melons and a host of other produce crops.

Experts tell us the rules will cover more than 200 commodities grown across the country.

In Idaho and Oregon, onion growers who get their water from open irrigation canals say that even before they conduct the regular tests required by the rules they know there’s no way they can meet the standard. There’s no practical way to treat the surface water, and switching to ground water for irrigation isn’t an viable option.

Their most practical option without a change to the rules is to stop growing onions and start using their water to grow something not eaten raw. That would end a regional industry worth more than $100 million, and Americans would have to find another source for half of their bulb onions.

Washington’s tree fruit growers have fewer options. Apple and cherry growers pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the region’s economy.

The FDA points out that the rule allows “alternative protocols” if they achieve the same goals. It’s up to individual growers or their commodity groups to develop these protocols and prove their efficacy. No small feat with no guarantee of success.

Congressmen whose constituents are impacted by the rules have threatened to defund the law’s enforcement. Perhaps the Obama administration, which has become proficient in delaying or outright ignoring the enforcement of laws it considers bothersome or ill timed, to postpone implementing new rules until alternatives can be found.

No one is against food safety, but we can’t imagine that Congress intended that food-borne illness prevention would result in the destruction of established sectors of the ag economy. We hope the FDA sees it the same way and comes up with an alternative rule that everyone can live with.

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