Proposed E. coli rules concern onion farmers

Amount of bacteria in water at issue

NYSSA, Ore. – Farmers in the nation’s largest onion-growing region who depend on shared public irrigation systems worry that proposed federal rules governing the cleanliness of water will threaten their livelihood.

The Idaho-Eastern Oregon onion growing region is the nation’s largest in terms of volume, with more than 20,000 acres of big-bulb onions grown annually. The region supplies about 25 percent of the nation’s total onion consumption.

The rules proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration focus on the amount of E. coli bacteria allowed in water that directly contacts produce during or after harvest.

Growers say almost none of the surface water will meet the new standards.

“Most of the surface water in this area will never meet those standards,” said Riley, chairman of a National Onion Association ad hoc committee that is studying the issue.

Idaho’s two Republican U.S. senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek have introduced legislation that seeks to defund the proposed fresh produce rule, the Capital Press reported.

“If (growers) are not concerned, they should be,” Oregon onion grower Reid Saito said. “It’s a pretty critical issue in terms of our ability to produce vegetables, in our case onions.”

The proposed rules come as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in December 2010. Growers who irrigate with surface water would be required to test weekly during the irrigation season under the new rules, at a cost of about $40 a test. If they fail a test, the only option is to quit using the water.

The FDA determined that five main commodity groups carry the risk of food-borne illnesses: herbs, leafy greens, melons, sprouts and tomatoes. It categorizes more than 200 other commodities as “other,” including onions.

Onion growers say the “other” designation unjustly lumps them in with hot peppers and green onions from Mexico, two commodities associated with food-borne illnesses.

“We believe that the commodity group ‘other,’ with hot peppers and green onions excluded, is safe and should not be regulated,” according to a letter to the FDA from the National Onion Association.

Shelly Burgess of the FDA said some commodities have little or no history of links to food-borne illness and exempting them from coverage could reduce costs to farmers.

“However, because food-borne illness outbreaks have regularly been associated with commodities that have previously not been linked to outbreaks,” she said, “this approach carries the risk of failing to prevent future outbreaks.”

Standards

 The proposed rules include two numerical standards on the amount of generic E. coli bacteria that can be present in agricultural water.

 One standard applies to water that directly comes into contact with produce during or after harvest and allows no detectable amounts of E. coli.

 The other standard applies to irrigation water and requires E. coli levels to be under 235 “colony forming units” of generic E. coli per 100 milliliters for any single water sample. The standard also requires five consecutive samples to have a mean of under 126 colony forming units.

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