On the Road with Mike Taylor: Touring the Pacific Northwest

By Michael R. Taylor

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor talks with Clinton Wissel, farmer and president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor talks with Clinton Wissel, farmer and president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association.

I am touring Idaho, Oregon and Washington this week with a team of FDA colleagues to learn about agriculture in this part of the country and to discuss with farmers, representatives of the food industry, agricultural extension scientists, and state agriculture officials the most effective ways to keep produce safe for you and your family.

In January 2013, FDA proposed the Produce Safety Rule mandated by the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This rule will set science-based safety standards for the production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the proposed regulations of particular concern relate to the quality of irrigation water.

Although this part of the country is high desert, we have been driving by acres and acres of farmland, lush with a great diversity of crops. And this bounty is only possible because of irrigation systems managed by and for growers. The contrast is stark when you see land that isn’t irrigated – it’s dry, brown and strewn with sagebrush.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor visits the New York irrigation canal delivery system in Boise, Idaho

The FDA team visited the New York irrigation canal delivery system in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013. Irrigation districts deliver water via canals to farm acreage. Shown from left: Tim Page, manager of the Boise Project Board of Control, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, Vern Case, director of the Wilder Irrigation District, and John Davis of the Treasure Valley Grape Growers.

Understandably then, farmers have questions and concerns about FDA’s proposed requirements governing irrigation water. Our goal at FDA is to enact food safety standards that are practical and work across a diversity of crops. As a result, we don’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to regulation. The rule provides growers the opportunity to use alternatives to some of our proposed standards for verifying that their irrigation practices are not introducing a food safety hazard.

That’s why we’re here—to see these farming operations first-hand and understand how water is being used to produce such major crops as onions, and apples and other tree fruits—crops that have a good food safety record. We are exploring how, through various approaches to alternatives and variances, we can satisfy the mandate of our new food safety law in a way that works under the conditions in the desert Northwest.

We are also assuring farmers that our proposed standards are very much works in progress. The public comment period for the Produce Safety Rule has been extended to Nov. 15, 2013. We want farmers and others to know that, after the comment period ends, we will have a lot of thinking to do, and we expect continuing collaboration for a long time to get the rules and their implementation right.

What we learn on this trip—and others like it—will guide us in creating the final version of the Produce Safety Rule. There is no substitute for talking to farmers, walking through fields and sharing meals with the people who actually produce our foods.

Our first stop was Idaho. We arrived yesterday—Aug. 11—in Boise and traveled by bus to the family farm of Clinton and Judy Wissel. Clinton is the president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association in addition to being the patriarch of this farming family.

We walked out into the onion fields and saw how the farm’s drip irrigation system works. Clinton explained that the onions are taken out of the ground and cured in the desert sun, which kills off bacteria.  With adequate scientific support, practices like this may be possible alternatives to meeting the proposed E. coli limit for irrigation water.

We shared barbecue that night with the Wissel family, joined by other representatives of the onion industry and other growers, in addition to state agriculture officials from all three states that we are visiting this week. On the family’s patio, we had the kind of dialog that we’d been hoping for, sharing observations, concerns and background.

The Wissels’ farmhouse is in a beautiful setting; it looks like an oasis. After we said our good-byes, we traveled to our next stop in Ontario, Oregon, passing orchards, hops, onions and other fields. We saw sprinkler, drip and furrow irrigation systems. All the growers and food producers we’ve met so far are very proud that they’ve created this lush farmland out of hard, dry dirt. And they have a right to be proud.

Our goal is to acknowledge that achievement and to work with them in developing standards that work for food safety and are also adaptable to all kinds of produce and growing conditions.

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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