Kay Riley
Kay Riley

An anchor in the produce aisle, onions are a must-have for retailers and consumers alike. Time-tested, tried and true, onions provide a reliable base to support category and department-wide growth.

Kay Riley, co-owner and manager of Snake River Produce, Nyssa, Ore., has a lot in common with onions.

Riley is described by colleagues as a diligent advocate who works within the system to stimulate positive change.

“Kay has worked tirelessly on many issues surrounding the onion industry and always tries to keep the best interests of the entire industry in the forefront,” said Candi Fitch, executive director of the Idaho Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, Parma, Idaho. 

His volunteer work is merely a matter of survival, Riley said.

“Washington, D.C., people live in a vacuum,” Riley said, adding that it’s not all their fault. “If you don’t speak up, someone else will. If you’re not there telling your story, they won’t know about it or do anything to help you.”

Now 60, Riley has been speaking up for decades.

He was president of the National Onion Association, where he co-authored the food safety guidelines — adopted by association members nationwide — long before Congress enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act.

He is currently marketing order chairman of the Idaho Eastern Oregon Onion Committee and a past president of the Idaho Oregon Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Riley said he is particularly proud of his work with the fruit and vegetable association in relation to pesticides.

“As a result of the pesticide violations, a group of shippers in the Treasure Valley ­— including Snake River Produce — created Certified Onions Inc., a nonprofit corporation that tests for pesticide residue levels and for the presence of pathogens in onions,” Riley said. 

Riley believes pathogen testing and other science-based data can bridge the gap between industry and government.

One testing project has already amassed three years of negative results for E. coli and salmonella on onion bulbs. Facts like that are Riley’s ammunition of choice.

“I’ve been in overdrive lately to address the water requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Riley said.

Certain commodity growers, including onion, tree fruit and potato growers, say the water rules are unnecessary at best and likely to bankrupt growers, at worst.

Leveraging his relationships with members of Oregon’s and Idaho’s congressional delegations, Riley earlier this year helped spur a visit by Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner Mike Taylor and a group of federal officials.

Taylor and the others toured onion growing and packing operations and saw harvest first-hand. Both growers and federal officials told media they learned much during the week of tours and listening sessions.

“The FSMA is the most challenging thing facing the produce industry now,” Riley said. “If we can come to an equitable resolution, that will be very rewarding.

“It is interesting to see what people can accomplish when they try to have an impact.”

Fitch said Riley’s impact is a given.

“Kay has been diligent and successful in bringing to light what effect the FSMA Produce Rule could have on the onion industry as well as other industries in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon growing region,” Fitch said.