On the Road with Mike Taylor, Day 3: Families and Partnerships

This is the third in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards that FDA is proposing.

By: Michael R. Taylor

As I visit farms in the Pacific Northwest this week, I have been truly moved by the passion that these farmers have for their work. This is not just a job to them – it’s their life. It’s their history, too, when the work is passed down from one generation to the next.

Kyle Mathison of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, WA, talks with Mike Taylor.

I am struck by the intensity of their desire to connect with me and with my FDA colleagues who have joined me in this tour of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to discuss provisions of the Produce Safety Rule that the agency proposed in January 2013. They want us to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

The landscape here is amazing — mountainous desert transformed into patchworks of fertile fields by the use of extensive irrigation systems. These systems move water through canals and reservoirs from the snowpack of the Cascade Mountains and deliver it to thousands of high desert farms. Irrigation makes agriculture possible here, which is good for the farmers, but also for consumers since some of the crops grown here would be hard to produce elsewhere. They thrive in this climate.

Cherries are one of those crops and we spent much of Tuesday, Aug. 13, visiting the multi-faceted operations of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Wash. The Mathison family has farmed this land for five generations, since Thomas Mathison – an immigrant from Scotland – homesteaded 160 acres on Stemilt Hill.

We saw how the varieties of cherries are harvested and then drenched in cold water to remove the field heat. We visited the composting facility that sits on 18 acres, and the Stemilt packing house. We discussed the critical role of properly made compost as a source of nourishment for organic production, both in the region and nationally, and the importance of ensuring that food safety and organic standards are compatible. The Mathisons are clearly proud of what they term their “world famous” fruit.

Andy Bary, a Washington State University research scientist, Mike Taylor, Nathaniel Lewis with the Food Safety-Organic Program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Gwendolyn Wyard of the Organic Trade Association examine the compost at Stemilt Growers.

From there we went to a different packing facility, Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Wash., that illustrates another theme of this trip – the importance of public-private partnerships with academia, state agriculture agencies and industry to develop and implement best practices.

Karen Killinger, Ph.D., an associate professor at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, has researched ways to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination in the produce packing process. She and her colleagues have worked with Double Diamond Fruit to implement a change in the packing line for apples that was shown to be more effective in killing bacteria.

As I travel this week, I am accompanied by some of the state leaders who will be full partners with FDA in implementing the produce rule and other safety regulations.

The presence of the three directors of the state agriculture departments – Donald “Bud” Hover (Washington), Katy Coba (Oregon) and Celia Gould (Idaho) – reminds me how much we value our state partners. They have a critical role in helping ensure that safety regulations crafted in Washington, D.C., are realistic as written and become a reality in the day-to-day operations of our food producers.

We have also been joined in our bus or in our cars – depending on which vehicles are working on any given day – by industry representatives who are providing input and perspective that will help us craft a final Produce Safety Rule that will be effective for food safety and practical for farmers.

FDA can’t do this alone. I don’t think that’s ever been clearer to me than it has been this week.

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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