Onion growers optimistic about water rule revisions

08/23/2013 04:43:00 PM
Coral Beach

click image to zoomFDA deputy commissioner Mike TaylorCourtesy Snake River ProduceMike Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner (right foreground) gets some tips from Reid Saito of KLG Farms (left foreground) on mastering the art of setting irrigation siphon tubes at Skeen Farms Inc..After federal officials met with growers and toured operations in the Pacific Northwest, they said they are confident they can work with industry to develop an alternative to a proposed water quality and testing rule — at least for some commodities.

More than 150 people attended a meeting with Food and Drug Administration officials Aug. 12 in Ontario, Ore. It was billed as a listening session by Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. Taylor and other FDA officials spent five days in the Northwest and plan a similar trip to the Northeast in coming weeks.

Taylor and Samir Assar, director of the produce safety staff at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, were among the officials who listened to comments from Northwest growers and others concerned about the proposed water regulations that are included in the proposed produce rule that is part of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Paul Skeen, owner of Skeen Farms Inc. and president of the Malheur County (Oregon) Onion Growers Association, said it was “phenomenal to get them here,” and that he got the feeling Taylor was genuinely sincere when he said an alternative to the proposed water rule could likely be worked out for onions.

click image to zoomFDA deputy commissioner Mike Taylor and Clinton WisselCourtesy USDAClinton Wissel, right, president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association, talks with FDA deputy director of foods Mike Taylor during a stop at an onion packing facility.“There was a huge learning curve for them and us,” Skeen said. “They were very open to what we were saying. We’ve been growing onions in this valley for more than 100 years, and there’s never been an issue with pathogens.”

Skeen said the officials didn’t realize the magnitude of food safety testing that is already going on within the onion operations. He estimated that onion growers in Malheur County, Ore., are already spending more than $1 million a year testing water that is used to irrigate their fields.

Taylor and Assar said they were impressed with the level of food safety awareness among the growers and packers.

“It was good to hear directly from the industry regarding the sampling they are already doing,” Assar said. “Now it’s up to us to work with them to figure out how to get an alternative that will work.”

The alternative would likely be one of three things, according to officials and growers:

  •  removing onions from the category that requires water testing and place them in the same category as potatoes, which are exempt because they are cooked before consumption;
  •  loosening water quality standards and reducing testing requirements for onions because the drip and furrow irrigation systems most frequently used by onion growers do not result in the water coming into direct contact with the onions; or
  •  developing new water regulation for the commodity.

click image to zoomFDA tour of Skeen Farms Inc. onion operationCourtesy Snake River ProduceThe FDA tour included stops at fields during harvest, such as this discussion at Skeen Farms Inc., Nyssa, Ore., as well as visits to packing and storage facilities.Onion growers would prefer a blanket exemption, said Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce, Nyssa, Ore. He said he was encouraged by the visit from Taylor, Assar and several other FDA officials, but he said he doesn’t quite understand why the current discussion is taking place.

“The National Onion Association submitted guidelines to the FDA three years ago and we haven’t heard anything,” Riley said. “I feel like the issue isn’t with our water, but is with their regulation. We need risk-based, not practice-based rules.”

Taylor said before such a variance can be allowed, the agency needs additional scientific evidence to support the growers’ position.

Riley said current research projects at the Oregon State University Experiment Station in Ontario and at Seattle-based research firm Intertox will do just that. He said the FDA’s extension for comments on the proposed produce rule that contains the water regulation will help the onion growers greatly.

The extension allows comments and scientific evidence to be submitted through Nov. 15.

They are under the gun now to have all of the FSMA rules final and published by summer 2015.

Taylor said they will meet the court deadline no matter what, and the rules will include a final produce rule with a final water regulation.

“The court deadline will be met,” Taylor said. “But enforcement of the water regulation is at least six years away because of the built-in time for producers to make changes to bring their operations into compliance.”

Taylor said discussions with the growers in the Northwest showed him that industry is working hard to gather data to support its position.

“This trip makes me confident that we can work with industry on this proposed regulation,” Taylor said. “It’s inspirational to see such commitment to food safety already present in these operations.”



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