Fruit industry can assure FDA region’s produce safe

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YAKIMA — Good intentions and legitimate health concerns underlie the Food Safety Modernization Act, approved by Congress in 2010. Implementation remains years away, but the time is now — specifically, Wednesday — for the local agricultural industry to weigh in on a nut-and-bolts provision that is proposed as part of the new law.

The years preceding the act saw highly publicized and dangerous outbreaks of diseases like E. coli, botulism and salmonella on goods like spinach, lettuce and cantaloupes.

Congress took action in an effort to make federal regulators more proactive and less reactive. The law gives the federal Food and Drug Administration more upfront authority to investigate food operations, an authority that the FDA now holds for seafood, juice and eggs. The federal Department of Agriculture oversees red meat and poultry.

The question centers on produce that is eaten raw, which applies to much of what is grown in the Yakima Valley. Among the requirements is a proposal to test all irrigation water before it touches the surface of any fruit.

Here in the Valley, of course, many fruit growers use overhead sprinklers not just to irrigate the crops, but to ward off sunburn during the heat of Valley summers — especially scorchers like this one.

The provision effectively would require sanitizing irrigation water, the cost of which could push smaller family growers out of the industry.

Growers as a result could shift to other crops that are cooked or processed — potatoes and asparagus come to mind — which could alter the market dynamics of those commodities.

Crops that sit on the soil throughout their growing season — as in the melons and lettuce that were the focus of food scares a few years back — are exposed to fertilizers, manure and other potentially hazardous agents much more acutely than are tree fruits.

As for tree fruits, most of us know not to drink irrigation water, but the industry already has taken steps to assure safety. Fruit warehouses already wash fruit and employ other food-safety programs, market-driven steps that meet the desires of retailers.

These are points for growers, packers and shippers to drive home to the he Washington, Oregon and Idaho departments of agriculture and Washington State University, Oregon State University and the University of Idaho.

An FDA meeting on the subject took place here last week.

Industry and FDA officials can agree on the importance of being proactive about safety.

Last week’s meeting allowed the local ag industry to inform government officials how the Yakima Valley tree fruit industry already is meeting the safety intent of the new law.

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