Editorial: FDA listens

Published Dec 24, 2013 at 12:01AM

Ever since the federal Food and Drug Administration came out with proposed new rules to ensure food safety in this country, onion growers in Eastern Oregon have been crying the blues. Now, perhaps, they’ll be able to dry those tears and move on.

The FDA has decided to rewrite rules governing the irrigation of fruits and vegetables. Onion growers have said that the original proposal likely would be so costly to comply with it would put many of them out of business.

Eastern Oregon and neighboring Washington is the largest onion-growing area in the United States, with some 20,000 acres planted to bulb onions. The region accounts for about 25 percent of all bulb onions grown in the United States.

The FDA, acting to fulfill requirements of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, announced its new rules this spring. Water cleanliness rules proposed for bulb onion growers and others would have required weekly testing and treatment of irrigation water, a process the farmers say would be prohibitively expensive.

They note that bulb onions, which are cured in the sun after picking and peeled before eating, never have been the source of food illness. Too, farm groups say, the proposed rules would have required farmers to meet recreational standards for water cleanliness.

Water quality rules aren’t the only ones that will be reworked. Rules governing compost and raw manure use, of particular importance to organic farmers, also will be changed, as will rules that govern mixed-use facilities that do such things as combine farming and food processing.

Americans are right to expect the FDA to live up to its charge to keep the nation’s food supply safe. It could come close to doing that, no doubt, with rules so draconian that they drive food costs up dramatically or put whole segments of the agriculture community out of business. But even draconian rules could not guarantee 100 percent food safety 100 percent of the time.

Rather, the agency must balance the competing need for food safety with the added burden new regulations might create. It appears to be trying to do that by agreeing to reconsider irrigation and other rules.