Onion growers certify safety

Capital Press file photo Onion growers in the Treasure Valley of Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon have established a program to ensure that onions from the area are free of pesticide residue. Here workers bury drip irrigation tape in an onion field near Wilder, Idaho.

Voluntary program created to reassure large-scale buyers

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

After two incidents involving misuse of pesticides in recent years, Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho onion producers are working overtime to show their product is safe.

Treasure Valley onion shippers this fall contracted with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to test their onions for pesticide residues.

Shippers started the certification program after more than a dozen growers were cited for off-label use of pesticides in two separate incidents in recent years.

"The marketplace is asking for this," said Dalton Hobbs, an assistant director for the department. "The marketplace is saying: I want to have assurances I am not going to get a recall, and I want to be able to trace it back to a particular field."

"With increased emphasis on food safety, I think we're just a step ahead of what probably is going to become mandatory anyway," said Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce and president of Certified Onions Inc., a nonprofit corporation the shippers formed to administer the program.

"And if not, I guess we're just being proactive," Riley said.

The shippers estimate about 70 percent of onion acreage in the Treasure Valley is tested under the program.

Twenty-one shippers are involved. Eighteen are 100 percent certified under the program.

Under the program, onion samples are tested at ODA's laboratory in Portland for several commonly used pesticides and for pesticides that were used off-label by growers in recent years.

Sampling can test to 1 part per billion, according to Jim Cramer, administrator of ODA's commodity inspection division.

Turn around time for the tests is about a week, Cramer said.

To date, there have been no positives, Riley said.

After the test, shippers receive a certificate verifying their onions are free of pesticide residue. Shippers can use the certificate to market their product.

The program is not necessarily designed to reach end-users with assurances of food safety, Cramer said. It is designed to ensure large-scale buyers that onions are safe.

Management at Certified Onion Inc. hopes one day to have full participation from Treasure Valley onion growers and eventually to expand to Western Oregon.

The program also could serve as a model for other commodities, Cramer said.

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