Of the many new requirements that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing as it implements the Food Safety Modernization Act, those relating to water are of particular concern to orchardists in the Pacific Northwest.
The regulations relate to both the source and the use of water.
Of the various water sources, the FDA considers a public water system to be the safest, followed by wells. Surface water, from lakes and rivers, is considered the least safe because of the potential for contamination from runoff and the inability of farmers to protect their water from contamination upstream.
If water is applied through a drip system to the ground so it doesn’t contact the edible part of the crop, or if the food will be cooked before being eaten, the FDA has few concerns. But if a significant quantity of runoff is likely to drain into the water source, and the water contacts the crop, then the water will need to be tested on farm at least every seven days during the growing season.
Many apple growers in arid eastern Washington use surface water both for irrigation and for cooling fruit on the trees during summer heat. Water is also applied to cherries after harvest to cool them.
During an FDA listening session in Yakima, Washington, orchardist Frank Lyall accused the FDA of implying that because Washington growers apply water to their apples for evaporative cooling, those apples are less safe than fruit grown in wetter regions of the country where farmers don’t apply water to their crops.
“We’re not making that assertion,” responded Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “We’re trying to figure out how to implement the law.”
Dr. Samir Assar, director of the FDA’s produce safety staff, said that, when developing the rules, the agency looked at the commodities that have been associated with outbreaks of illness. It did not find any involving fresh deciduous tree fruits, but did find outbreaks traced to papaya and mangoes.
“The history of outbreaks is not a good assessment of risk of future outbreaks,” he stressed. “Every year or so, new commodities pop up.”
Water played a key role in many outbreaks, but was never the sole factor, he added. The key was where it came into contact with crops. That’s why the agency decided to focus its rules on practices involving direct application of water that could be contaminated.
“The rule is risk-based and science-based,” he said.
Dr. Erick Snellman, FDA policy analyst, explained that the concern is that bacteria can bind to sediment that can be washed into rivers and lakes.
Rather than require testing for a number of different pathogens, the FDA is focusing on genericEscherichia coli as an indicator of the likelihood of fecal contamination. It’s a trigger for growers to assess their water system.
The regulations state that if levels of generic E. coli in a single sample exceed 235 coliform-forming units per 100 milliliters of water or if a five-sample rolling mean exceeds 126 cfu, that water source can no longer be used.
A member of the audience asked how much runoff the agency considered “significant” and pointed out that up to August this year, the Yakima area had received only three inches of rainfall.
Snellman acknowledged that without rain there is no runoff, but said terms like “significant” will be defined in guidance documents that will be issued along with the final rule.
There were also questions about how “growing season” is defined. Officials said it might mean the period when the crop is on the tree, but that also probably will be in the guidance documents.
Another audience member pointed out that almost all of central Washington’s surface water comes from runoff from snowmelt, so a farmer would be testing the water all the time.
Irrigation district representatives also warned that growers using water from return flows would likely have challenges meeting the proposed water quality standard. It would be a financial burden for growers to test the water all season long, and not helpful if the water’s not going to meet the standard anyway. If they have to stop using the water, their crops will be damaged.
Snellman said the agency understands that many growers in the Northwest receive their supplies from irrigation districts.
“We understand that’s your only option in many cases,” he said, adding that the agency is not advocating wholesale treatment of water from irrigation districts. Some alternative to imposing a numerical standard for water contamination might be needed for that region, he added. “We’ve got that message.”
Growers suggested that research needs to be done to find out, for example, how quickly microorganisms die off in Washington’s dry climate when water is applied to apples for overhead cooling.
An irrigation district representative asked if the FDA was taking into account the Northwest’s long history of producing safe food.
“You’re offering a solution to a problem that’s not as large as in other parts of the country,” he said. “It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence that once the rule’s set, there will be workability after that.”
“We’re very committed to coming up with a rule at the end of the day that does take into account the conditions here, and different degrees of risk, and that does work in a way that fulfils the statutory mandate that we have under FSMA but is workable,” Taylor responded. “I can’t today tell you in writing what the solution is, but we’re committed to working with you.”
Assar said that after the regulations go into effect, growers will have two years to comply with the water standards in addition to the two to four years that will be allowed for the regulations in general.
That means it could be 2019 before large growers need to be in compliance and even later for small growers.
Dr. Ines Hanrahan, project manager with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, asked if resources would be available to fund research on alternative practices or whether the industry would have to absorb the cost.
Taylor said the FDA has very little funding to support research, but it has developed a framework for conducting studies on alternatives that should help those doing the research. More funding is needed to support implementation of the regulations in the interest of both food safety and agricultural producers, he added. •