Proposed regulations could bring an end to PNW onion crop
By SEAN ELLIS
NYSSA, Ore. -- Growers in the nation's largest onion-growing region worry proposed federal rules on agricultural irrigation water could put them out of business.
The rules would impact many produce growers, but onion growers in particular are concerned about the Food and Drug Administration's proposed limits on allowable microbial levels in agricultural water that were issued as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
If the rules governing irrigation water used on fresh produce pass as currently proposed, "onions will not be grown in Idaho and Eastern Oregon," said Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, Ore. "It's a scary deal."
Nyssa is in the heart of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon growing region, the nation's largest in terms of volume. More than 20,000 acres of big bulb onions are grown annually in the Snake River Valley in southwest Idaho and Malheur County in Eastern Oregon.
There are 40 packing sheds in the valley and the region supplies about 25 percent of the nation's total onion consumption. Farm-gate receipts for onions in the region totaled $122 million last year and the industry's impact on the regional economy is estimated at $1.3 billion.
While more than 200 commodities would be affected by the FDA's proposed rules governing agricultural water -- water likely to come into contact with produce -- the onion industry is a prime example of how they could impact farmers.
Concern among onion growers is the impetus for a congressional effort to defund the proposed rules.
Growers in the region express great fear over the rules, which limit the amount of coliform bacteria that can be present in agricultural water and apply to all fresh produce that could be consumed raw.
"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 include two numerical standards on the amount of generic E. coli bacteria that can be present in agricultural water. Generic E. coli is widespread and the standards serve as an indicator there might be a bigger problem.
One standard allows no detectable amounts of E. coli when the water is used in a manner that directly contacts produce during or after harvest.
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. That standard also requires five consecutive samples to have a rolling geometric mean of under 126 units.
Surface water woe
Virtually all onions in this region are irrigated with surface water and almost none of this water will meet the new standards, said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa.
"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.
Using well water is not an option for most growers in the region and would be a costly alternative because of increased power costs, Idaho onion grower Ron Mio said.
Bacteria levels in surface water are so variable that it's pointless to speculate on a level that might be acceptable to onion growers, Riley said.
While some surface water close to reservoirs might pass the standards, that's a big gamble, said Clint Shock, director of Oregon State University's Malheur County research station.
"There is a tremendous risk to start growing something when your water might not meet those standards," said Shock, who is advising the local onion industry on the issue. "If you can't continually use your water source, you're done."
Groundwater has much lower E. coli levels than surface water because soil serves as a filter and groundwater is isolated from E. coli sources such as people, livestock and other animals and rodents.
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.
Under the current proposal, "if your water doesn't meet the limits, you cannot use it," said Byron Shock, Clint Shock's son and a researcher and analyst with Scientific Ecological Services, a consulting firm that is helping the onion industry wade through the proposed rules.
"If it doesn't meet the standards -- and most water here cannot meet the standards -- then what do you do?" Byron Shock added. "You have to stop using that water."
While treating water could be a costly option, any chemicals used in the treatment of irrigation water would require Environmental Protection Agency registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.
However, no such registration process for chemical treatment of irrigation water currently exists, a fact that FDA officials confirmed.
"It's not clear that there is any legal way to treat the water," Byron Shock said.
Shelly Burgess, FDA team leader for food, veterinary and cosmetic products, said the agency anticipates the produce industry will have adequate time to address that issue before the rules are implemented.
But as the proposed rules currently stand, the region's onion industry could not exist and that is alarming to farmers, said Craig Froerer, who manages Owyhee Produce's farming operations.
'Scared to death'
"This is huge. We are scared to death," he said. "To me, this issue has the potential to be the most detrimental to agriculture since I started farming here in 1978. Because if this goes into place, it changes the whole world we live in."
Clint Shock said the proposed regulations could create winners and losers by favoring farmers who get their water from wells.
"Growers who depend on irrigation wells and less on shared public irrigation systems might be given a competitive advantage," he said.
The rules could also favor small farmers -- growers who sell less than $25,000 in crops annually and some who sell mostly directly to consumers or local restaurants would be exempt -- and large corporate farms, which can better shoulder the cost of testing, he adds.
"It's not a scale-neutral regulation," he said.
Burgess said the FSMA, passed by Congress in December 2010, has given the FDA a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, prevention-based controls across the food supply.
She said the rules represent a paradigm shift from reaction to prevention and are designed to be flexible for small and medium size growers, "focusing only on those practices that pose a potential food safety risk.... FDA is focusing on farms that account for the greatest amount of production and that grow produce most likely to cause food-borne illness."
The FDA evaluated data from 2003-2008 to estimate the public health risks and benefits of the proposed new regulations. It created six commodity groups based on this evaluation: herbs, leafy greens, melons, sprouts, tomatoes and other.
According to comments on the proposed rules sent to the FDA by the National Onion Association, the first five groups have a history of food-borne illnesses, while the "other" category represents more than 200 agricultural commodities.
The association's letter said the vast majority of food-borne illnesses in the "other" group during the evaluation period were traceable to hot peppers and onions that came from Mexico, according to the FDA's own data.
Onion growers believe hot peppers and green onions should be covered under the proposed rules, "but we do not see how the FDA can justify regulating the other 200-plus commodities that collectively pose little risk of food-borne illness to Americans," the association's letter states. "We believe that the commodity group 'other,' with hot peppers and green onions excluded, is safe and should not be regulated."
FDA officials confirmed that there has never been a food-borne illness outbreak associated with bulb onions reported to the agency. However, they also pointed out that a research study cited in the proposed rules demonstrates that E. coli contamination of onions can occur through contaminated manure compost and irrigation water.
Some commodities have little or no history of links to food-borne illness and exempting them from coverage could reduce costs to farmers, Burgess said.
"However, because food-borne illness outbreaks have regularly been associated with commodities that have previously not been linked to outbreaks, this approach carries the risk of failing to prevent future outbreaks," she adds.
The FDA recently extended the comment period on the proposed rules another 120 days, to Sept. 16, and Burgess said the agency will "carefully consider those comments in crafting final rules."
The proposed rules allow farmers to propose using alternative protocols to achieve the same results if it can be scientifically shown that they are at least as effective as the FDA rules in controlling microbial bacteria levels.
If the proposed rules are adopted as currently written, developing an alternative protocol appears to be onion growers' best avenue to comply with the regulations, Byron Shock said.
The proposed rules also allow states to request variances for individual commodities.
But, Riley said, any request for variances or alternative protocols "is subject to the FDA's whims."
Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Michigan Republican Rep. Dan Benishek have introduced legislation in the Senate and House that seeks to defund the proposed fresh produce rule.
The congressmen will try to include the provision in the new farm bill through the amendment process but will run the bill as stand-alone legislation if that attempt fails, said Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern.
"The situation the onion guys are facing is a big part of why we are doing this," Nothern said. "It just doesn't make any sense to include them...."
FDA's "assertion that even minimum risk commodities should be subject to the same rules based on evidence that has not materialized is particularly concerning," Crapo said.
The Food Safety Modernization Act
* The Food Safety Modernization Act aims to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. According to FDA, it's the most sweeping change in U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years.
* Proposed FDA rules related to the FSMA include new regulations covering agricultural water that apply to most fruits and vegetables that can be consumed raw.
* FDA estimates all of its proposed rules would cover an estimated 97,600 farms and cost the industry $460 million annually.
* The comment period for the proposed rules has been extended 120 days, to Sept. 16.