NYSSA — It was legislation that members of the onion industry supported, but the rules proposed for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act have growers and packers involved in a lobbying effort to save their industry.
A small group of farmers, including local industry leaders, met with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, in Nyssa Friday, to explain their side of the issue and give him information to help him back them up.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in January 2011 with the aim of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply and shifting the focus to prevention. It requires the Food and Drug Administration to establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or death.
Kay Riley, of Snake River Produce, where the session was held, said that the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rules are requiring that producers of some fruits and vegetables meet recreational water quality standards for E-coli and that if water test results show E-coli above those standards, growers cannot use the water until the tests clear or the water is treated. Either way, treating the water or not treating the water, it could shut down onion production, he said.
“If we don’t have irrigation water, we don’t farm,” he said.
Riley estimated that, if imposed as written, the regulations would require about 28,000 water samples out of the valley each season, at an estimated cost of $40 per sample.
With the size of farms in the region, if a grower had to stop irrigating at a critical period in the season, there could be a tremendous loss in the onion crop, said Reid Saito, Nyssa-area farmer.
The farm gate value of the onion crop in Malheur County, No. 1 in Oregon, is $100 million, year-in, year-out, he said.
A common sense approach would be to have regulators look at produce that has had problems first, he said.
“I don’t think we have a food safety issue here,” he said. The focus needs to be on high risk crops.
Growers said there has never been an incident of contamination in dry bulb onions.
As for meeting the water quality standards, the growers said that water right from the canal will meet standards but it is the water that is reused from field to field that would not.
The onion industry has been trying to get the FDA to separate onions from 200 commodities they were lumped together with, such as leafy greens which have direct contact with irrigation water.
The outer skins of the onion bulbs protect the consumed portions of the onion from contamination, and onions are cured out in the field, weeks after irrigation has ended.
“It’s not a bad law,” Riley said, adding that the onion industry had supported it. “It’s a bad rule.”
Walden agreed, commenting that lawmakers thought they had written the law pretty tightly.
Another issue raised by the local onions growers is how imported produce will be regulated. Even if the imports have to meet the same standards, they questioned how that would be proved and noted that random sampling would be allowed for imported produce, while domestic producers would face more stringent sampling requirements.
Walden said he planned to meet with FDA officials to raise the growers’ issues with them.
The comment period began in January and was extended to Sept. 16.