Blueberries and bananas are in, but black-eyed peas are out. Papaya is in, but plantains and pumpkins are out. Spinach and summer squash, in. Sweet potatoes and winter squash, out. Artichokes? Out. Apples? In.
And many apple farmers, as it turns out, aren’t too thrilled about that.
The Food and Drug Administration, wrestling to put in place a massive overhaul of the nation’s food safety system, drew a line this year when proposing which fruits and vegetables would be subject to strict new standards: Those usually consumed raw would be included, while those usually cooked or processed would be exempt.
Since then, few groups have expressed more frustration than tree fruit farmers, who grow apples, pears and a variety of other produce. They complain that the FDA’s approach, in some ways, defies common sense.
Those gripes offer a case study in the challenges of implementing the landmark 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, which directed the FDA to prevent food-borne illnesses rather than simply react to outbreaks. It’s an easy idea to embrace. But when it gets down to apples and oranges, figuring out who should abide by which rules has proven anything but simple.
Growers subject to the new produce rules could face a variety of new responsibilities, including regular testing of irrigation water, sanitizing canvas fruit-picking bags and keeping animals away from crops. Many tree fruit farmers worry about the cost of such measures and say they would offer few safety benefits.
They argue that the FDA should focus more on foods that have caused deadly outbreaks, such as spinach and cantaloupes, and less on fruits that have a virtually flawless safety record, grow above the ground and, in some cases, have protective skins or rinds.
“Our product is quite safe,” said Phil Glaize, a third-generation farmer and owner of Glaize Apples in Winchester, Va. “We’re perfectly willing to look at ways to make it safer. However, what’s being proposed is very onerous and expensive. ... (The costs) would end up getting passed on to the consumer, if we didn’t go out of business first.”
FDA officials say that the proposals offer a starting point and that they are open to making changes to create a science-based system that is adaptable to different growing conditions, different regions and different crops.
“It’s complicated. It’s a big, transformational thing that we’re doing. ... We’re creating a whole new food-safety system here, so we accept that it will take some time to get the rules right,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food-safety official, said in a recent interview. “The point is, we want to target our standards where they will make a practical difference.”
Despite such assurances, wariness persists on orchards from the Shenandoah Valley to the Yakima Valley.
“I’ve had a couple guys call and say, ‘I’m 55 years old. If this goes into effect, I just want to get out,’ ” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents growers of apples and other tree fruits in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. “It’s hard enough to get by all that nature throws at you and to make some money at the end of the day.”
Leslie Judd, who with her husband and son oversees 350 acres of apples, cherries and pears in Washington’s Yakima Valley, says her family abides by state standards, industry best practices and detailed demands from major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco. She said the proposed federal rules are unnecessary and would further strain the resources of her family farm and many others like it.
“Somebody in an office in Washington, D.C., who’s never stepped foot off concrete has decided we need this rule and that rule. We’re starting to get to the point where it’s like, ‘Give me a break,’ ” Judd said. “We have a darn good product and a darn good industry. ... The market has already taken care of this problem, if it’s a problem. Which it isn’t.”