NYSSA, Ore. (AP) — Some Eastern Oregon onion growers said proposed food safety rules requiring higher standards for irrigation water could shut them down in the middle of a growing season.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the rules under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act are part of a preventive strategy: There's no history of salmonella or E. coli outbreaks in dry, bulb onions, and the agency wants to keep it that way.
Growers and others who met with Oregon U.S. Rep. Greg Walden at a Nyssa processing company said water rights from an irrigation canal would meet the standards, but water reused from field to field would not, the Ontario Argus Observer reported.
Grower Reid Saito said that if the large farms in the region had to stop irrigating at a critical period in the season, there could be a tremendous loss.
"If we don't have irrigation water, we don't farm," said Kay Riley of Snake River Produce.
Onions are one of Oregon's top crops. As in the Snake River Valley, the crop is often grown with irrigation. The Oregon Department of Agriculture put the value of the 2011 Oregon crop at $92 million, 11th among the top 40 crops and ranking behind Christmas trees and ahead of hazelnuts.
The farmers said dry bulb onions don't have a history of contamination, unlike green onions. They want the agency to separate onions from about 200 commodities in the rule, on the grounds that the skins of onions protect the consumed parts from contamination, and the crop cures in the field long after irrigation ends.
FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said the proposed standards are part of the agency's new stance on potential food threats.
"We felt this was necessary because water is one of the five recognized routes for contamination for produce," Burgess said.
The agency expects to take comment about the proposed rule through mid-September.
In northeastern Oregon, concern about the proposed rule isn't so high.
Extensive sampling of Columbia River water has shown improved conditions in recent years, and even with tougher standards, many farms are still well below the limits, said J.R. Cook, director of the newly-formed Northeast Oregon Water Association.
"Our surface water quality is through-the-roof good," Cook told the East Oregonian.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.