Growers and shippers of onions and other commodities say they once could highlight their food safety programs in their marketing initiatives, but that’s no longer the case.

Everybody has a food safety program now, they said.

In 2010, the U.S. onion industry developed voluntary commodity-specific food safety guidelines for the dry bulb onion supply chain, but virtually every grower and shipper has an audit program in place.

The guidelines help industry participants stick to best practices and the latest rules governing production and handling procedures, according to the National Onion Association.

Industry demand

“Food safety is on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” said Jeff Brechler, sales representative and grower liaison for Edinburg, Texas-based J&D Produce.

That has brought widespread changes in the marketing of onions, he said.

“The landscape of the produce industry has changed,” he said.

Food safety isn’t merely an afterthought — it’s a center-of-the-plate issue, Brechler said.

“Safety programs are not the small plants anymore — they’re the big trees,” he said.

There once was a time a grower-shipper could actively market an onion crop as audited and certified, but that’s no longer the case, Brechler said.

“Now, it’s just a way of doing business and is one of the top five questions out of anybody’s mouth now,” he said.

Government rules

Government involvement in what once was an industry-led push for tightened production and handling procedures has changed the equation in numerous ways.

The Food and Drug Administration in February published an interim rule regarding its access to food companies’ records.

The rule went into effect March 1, and the agency is scheduled to take public comments on it until May 23.

“Everybody’s waiting for the FDA to take this whole thing from a voluntary system to something that’s going to be mandatory,” said Wayne Mininger, executive vice president with the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association.

It is hoped the FDA’s approach to safety is acceptable across the industry, Mininger said.

“There’s pros and cons about going to a government-regulated system,” he said, saying the industry has policed itself “quite well” in the past.

“Now, we’re on the verge from going from a system that was energized from buyer-seller arrangement to a mandatory system,” Mininger said.

Industry participants are a bit anxious about what will happen, Mininger said.

“Folks are waiting to see what kind of complexity it’s going to add, whether it adds layers of cost and bureaucracy to the product or whether it has a degree of reasonableness about it to work within the confines of the new rules and try to work seamlessly,” he said.

Records must be produced within 24 hours of an official request from FDA.

No new records are required to be kept, but the interim rule does specify that records must be maintained for at least two years.

Farms and restaurants are excluded, but many businesses in the fresh produce industry are covered by the rule because it applies to anyone who “manufacturers, processes, packs, distributes, received, holds or imports” food.

The FDA officials stated in the Federal Register notice that they anticipate issuing a final rule one year after the close of the comment period on May 23.

“We certainly provided input,” Mininger said.

He said there has never been an incident of foodborne illness associated with bulb onions.

“We had a document that all facets of industry weighed in on and we’ve placed it in the hands of FDA and USDA and asked they consider that as a reasonable approach for our commodity,” he said.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to ensure its safety protocols and records meet all requirements, said Sherise Jones, marketing director for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, Parma, Idaho.

“Shippers from our area have worked very hard to implement traceability programs,” she said.

It’s part of day-to-day activity, said Steve Smith, president and owner of National Onion Inc., Las Cruces, N.M.

“We have it in place, and our customers know that,” he said.

Bob Hale, president of Hermiston, Ore.-based River Point Farms LLC, said his company has taken extra steps.

“We’re one of the only farms in the nation that has passed the USDA harmonized GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audit and have all these audits together in a super-audit,” he said.

Customers can visit the plant and fields anytime to see the operation first-hand, Hale said.

“That happens, too — our customers visit us regularly,” he said.