On the Road with Mike Taylor, Day 2: Frank Talk in Farm Country

By: Michael R. Taylor

We spent a second day in onion country on Monday, Aug. 12, visiting farms, food processing and packing companies, and an irrigation system. Idaho, Oregon and Washington are the top onion-producing states and we learned a lot about how onions are grown, harvested, packed and processed and how irrigation water is delivered to these high desert landscapes.

Paul Skeen, farmer and president of the Malheur County Onion Growers in Oregon, shows Mike Taylor how water is siphoned from the canal for furrow irrigation of bulb onions.

And then we listened to the concerns of farmers and others involved in the production of our foods who question whether certain standards in the Produce Safety Rule that FDA proposed in January 2013 will work in their production settings.

In this region, growers and other stakeholders in the produce industry are focused in particular on proposed regulations related to the quality of irrigation water. FDA is proposing numerical criteria for the level of E.coli in irrigation water, which has been shown to be a pathway for disease-causing bacteria.

Their reservations were plain to see when more than 150 of them came out to the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Ore., on Monday for a listening session. In addition to my team at FDA, I was joined by Katy Coba and Celia Gould, directors respectively of the Department of Agriculture in Oregon and Idaho, and other state officials from all three states. There were also representatives from academia and the produce industry.

The room was so full that people were standing in the back; many of them had taken a break from their farming duties to attend. Person after person stepped up to speak at the open mike. These growers believe their crops are safe and are concerned about the impact the regulations would have on their businesses. Representatives of industry made the point that more data is needed before some of these regulations are put into effect.

And I was there to tell them all that they have FDA’s attention. Yes, their crops may have a low overall risk of contamination, and we are committed to issuing only those standards that are necessary for public health protection. But at the same time, we need to prevent illnesses from happening—that’s what the proposed Produce Safety Rule, mandated by the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is all about.

Katy Coba (in red shirt), director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture talks to Mike Taylor and others visiting the Warm Springs Irrigation System and Owyhee Pipeline in southeastern Oregon.

We gave assurances that the proposed rule provides the opportunity for alternative ways to meet certain safety standards if those ways are scientifically proven to be effective. I hope we convinced them that we want to figure this out in a practical way—together. This trip is not just an exercise for us – we really want to learn what works on the ground-level. What we take away from this trip will have a big impact on the shape the regulations take.
FSMA is about food safety but it’s also about making sure consumers have access to a plentiful supply of fruits and vegetables, which are important for a healthy diet.  It’s about giving the public confidence in the safety of the food supply and having a stable, safe marketplace.

It was an emotional meeting and one filled with raw, honest discussions. There will be more sessions like this as we involve other stakeholders in the process of building practical, effective food-safety regulations.

As an aside, this trip has not been without a few small bumps. Our bus broke down Monday night—fortunately in a service station that had snacks—and now we’re caravanning by car. And when I’ve tried my hand at some farming tools, I’ve gotten mixed reviews. One farmer watching me try to install an irrigation siphon hose offered this sage advice: “Don’t quit your day job.”

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs to keep you up to date on what I’m learning here and in my travels to New England next week.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

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