FDA food safety proposals frustrate Idaho tree fruit farmers

The Washington Post, zkyle@idahostatesman.comMay 7, 2013 

0620 local farm4

John Williamson grew up working on the family-owned Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Canyon County. “My first job was thinning and picking apples, and (I) was supervisor of a crew when I was 15,” Williamson told the Statesman in 2010. Each generation has expanded the farm.

SHAWN RAECKE — Shawn Raecke/sraecke@idahostates

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.

Many apple farmers in Idaho and elsewhere, 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.

TREE FRUITS: FEW PROBLEMS

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.

Roger Williamson, who co-owns Williamson Orchards and Vineyards near Nampa with his brother John Williamson, says the rule changes would affect the bottom lines of big farms and smaller operations like his. His 30 acres of apples, peaches and cherries produced about a half million pounds of fruit last year.

All farmers appreciate the need for safe food, Williamson says. The problem is that it seems arbitrary to have the same food-handling standards for fruit picked from trees as for produce picked from the ground.

“I’m afraid common sense is being taken away by people who are very black-and-white, right-or-wrong,” Williamson says. “There’s no other condition they consider.”

FDA: WE’RE LISTENING

FDA officials say that the proposals offer a starting point. 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,” says Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food-safety official. “The point is, we want to target our standards where they will make a practical difference.”

Despite such assurances, wariness persists in 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,’” says 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.”

ADVANTAGE FOR FOREIGN PRODUCE?

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 Walmart and Costco. She says 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 says. “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.”

The FDA is planning a slew of new rules that eventually will govern everything from U.S. farms to foreign imports to processing plants. But many domestic farmers doubt that their foreign competitors will face the kind of scrutiny that they will.

“The stuff that’s coming in from China is not subject to the kind of regulation that American food is,” says Diane Kearns, a fifth-generation farmer and president of Fruit Hill Orchards, a Virginia apple grower.

“Our product is quite safe,” says 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.”

SOME FARMS EXEMPTED

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the produce industry, says he supports modernizing the food-safety system and doesn’t envy the FDA’s task of drawing up complex new regulations. But he says he hopes the agency will take a more nuanced approach in deciding which crops deserve tighter scrutiny — and which don’t.

“Part of our problem is that each commodity is different,” Stenzel says. “We agree on what the big risk factors are — water, soil amendments, animal intrusion, worker hygiene.”

He also pointed out a dilemma facing many farmers. Some who grow crops that would be exempted, such as kale, already follow many of the proposed standards. They might end up asking the FDA to include them under the rules, in part because the regulations might be viewed as a safety stamp of approval.

FDA officials note that the new regulations would exempt farms with average annual sales of $25,000 or less and offer exemptions to certain other farms that bring in less than $500,000 a year and sell primarily to consumers within a 275-mile radius. Smaller farms also would have years longer to comply with the new rules.

The FDA has extended the public comment period until Sept. 16. Click here for details

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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