Blueberries and bananas are in, but black-eyed peas are out. Papaya is in, but plantains and pumpkins are 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, while 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 a variety of other produce. They complain the FDA’s approach, in some ways, defies common sense.
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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, figuring out who should abide by which rules has proved anything but simple.
Growers subject to the new 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 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, a third-generation farmer and 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 … [The costs] would end up getting passed on to the consumer, if we didn’t go out of business first.”
FDA officials say the proposals offer a starting point and are open to changes adaptable to different growing conditions, 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 in a recent interview.
“The point is, we want to target our standards where they will make a practical difference.”
Despite such assurances, wariness persists in orchards from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to the Yakima Valley.
“I’ve had a couple guys call and say, ‘I’m 55 years old. If this goes into effect, I just want to get out,’ ” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents tree-fruit growers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. “It’s hard enough to get by all that nature throws at you and to make some money at the end of the day.”
Leslie Judd, who with her husband and son oversees 350 acres of apples, cherries and pears in the Yakima Valley, says her family abides by state standards, industry best practices and detailed demands from major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco. She said the federal rules are unnecessary and would further strain the resources of family farms like hers.
“Somebody in an office in Washington, D.C., who’s never stepped foot off concrete, has decided we need this rule and that rule. We’re starting to get to the point where it’s like, ‘Give me a break,’ ” Judd said. “We have a darn good product and a darn good industry. … The market has already taken care of this problem, if it’s a problem. Which it isn’t.”
The FDA plans a slew of new rules that eventually will govern everything from U.S. farms to imports to processing plants. But many domestic farmers doubt their foreign competitors will face the same kind of scrutiny.
FDA officials note that the new regulations would exempt farms with average annual sales of $25,000 or less and offer exemptions to certain other farms that bring in less than $500,000 a year and sell primarily to consumers within a 275-mile radius. Smaller farms also would have years longer to comply with the new rules.
Plenty of jockeying has taken place to shape the proposals. Comment letters have poured in, and the FDA has extended the comment period through May.
Farmers, activists and industry representatives — including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas — have lined up to make their voices heard during a nationwide listening tour by Taylor and other FDA officials.
At a recent meeting in Portland, several growers questioned the FDA’s estimate of the economic impact of the new requirements. The agency has said the regulations would cost domestic farms a total of about $460 million annually, or $5,000 to $30,000 per farm, depending on size.
According to the agriculture publication Capital Press, one local farmer told officials the new rules seemed like “overkill” for tree fruits, which, unlike some other crops, haven’t been linked to major outbreaks.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Charles Lyall, a farmer from Mattawa, Grant County.
“Rest assured, what you’re saying is being heard,” Taylor replied.
Judd, the Yakima Valley farmer, hopes that’s true. She said she knows other growers, wary of mounting regulations and weary of shrinking profits, who have either sold out to larger operations or simply stopped farming.
“All of these little things just keep piling up,” she said. “It’s just getting harder and harder. At some point, you just say, ‘To heck with it.’ ”