Apple growers think the new FDA rules on fruits are nuts

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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.

And many apple farmers 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; 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 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, it is anything but simple.

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.

“Our product is quite safe,” said Phil Glaize, 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.”

FDA officials say they are open to making changes to create a science-based system adaptable to 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,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food-safety official, said.

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