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Originally published Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 7:32 PM

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Tree-fruit growers see proposed rules as burden

Tree-fruit growers in Washington state are still digesting proposed rules issued Friday by the federal Food and Drug Administration to implement the 2-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act.

Yakima Herald-Republic

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Washington's tree-fruit industry had hoped to be treated separately from crops grown on the ground under new federal food-safety regulations. After all, ground crops like lettuce and cantaloupes — not tree fruit — have been involved in recent deadly outbreaks.

But it didn't happen. As written, fruit growers will have to meet the same regulations as other crops in proposed rules issued Friday by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The rules are designed to implement the 2-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping change in food safety in decades.

The rules, subject to a 120-day comment period, cover both farms and warehouses, and would not take effect until after the next growing season. Additional regulations will be released later for imported food and on traceability.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, said that while the industry supports a safe food supply, the rules will create a major burden for individual growers, imposing an annual cost for implementation of between $12,000 to $30,000, depending on a farm's size.

The rules cover worker training; health and hygiene; irrigation water applied to crops; organic soil amendments; treatment of the presence of domesticated or wild animals in a field; recordkeeping; and equipment, tools and buildings.

Schlect said growers will have a difficult time wading through the 500 pages of proposed rules.

"Once these are implemented down the line, it will make it more difficult for a family farmer to stay in business," said Schlect, whose organization represents Northwest fruit growers on trade and regulatory issues. "The biggest growers in the United States can afford it, but it has a perverse policy outcome. Everyone wants the family farmer to survive, but this is an instance of government making it more difficult for them to survive."

Schlect said he would expect the state's fruit warehouses to be better equipped to deal with the regulations because they already have adopted food-safety programs at the insistence of retailers.

Industry groups across the country are still trying to digest the rules. The requirements on dealing with irrigation water, however, may be the most problematic. They direct that irrigation water that touches produce "be of safe and sanitary quality." Most water applied on Yakima Valley farms comes from canals fed from rivers. Under the new rules, water that touches produce in the field must be treated if, for any reason, the water may not be safe.

Irrigation water often touches fruit because it is applied from overtree sprinklers that also are designed to help cool the fruit.

"There are a lot of technical issues involving water at the farm that FDA is concerned about," Schlect said. "They are focused on ground crops, but chose not to separate out high- and low-risk commodities and exempt things like apples. We are caught up in having to deal with it."

Schlect said none of the rules will take effect for the 2013 growing season. Public meetings sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration will be conducted around the country before final rules are implemented.

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