FOWLER, Calif. — The oranges floating through the chlorine solution in the Bee Sweet Citrus Inc. packing plant will soon be packed in boxes stamped with name brands such as Dole and then shipped off to supermarkets across the country or to destinations in Japan, South Korea and other foreign points.
The chlorine bath, one of the first steps the oranges go through after arriving at the plant, is supposed to rid them of any harmful bacteria. In fact, fresh oranges have a sterling food safety record, but that’s not enough to exempt them and other fruit with little history of outbreaks from food safety regulations.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed new agricultural standards that will require growers of dozens of varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, including citrus, to take costly steps to prevent raw produce from being contaminated with harmful bacteria.
The FDA’s decision on which types of produce should be subject to the standards — and which are exempt — has emerged as one of the most controversial rules the agency faces as it implements the wide-ranging requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (PL 111-353).
Congress passed the law in response to a series of outbreaks involving raw produce, mainly greens that are grown close to the ground and easily contaminated by irrigation water or manure fertilizer. Growers of a variety of fruit say the new requirements for water testing, documentation, wildlife control and other measures will be costly and unnecessary, especially for crops such as oranges that are grown above the ground, cleansed during packing and peeled before being eaten.
Will Duane Scarlett, who grows apples, pears and cherries in Washington state, wrote to the FDA recently that the produce standards could put him out of business, even though the irrigation water he uses doesn’t come into contact with the fruit.
“With our nation’s desire to consume produce grown locally, I think there needs to be an exemption for these crops that are not grown on the soil surface,” he said.
The water-testing requirements alone could cost California orange and lemon producers more than $80 million a year, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade group that represents the industry. Trying to control wildlife, which can contaminate crops by defecating on them, is impractical. In California, groves typically aren’t fenced in, partly because of the need to get equipment in and out easily.
“You have a regulation that was passed, and then after the fact we’re putting the details in on it, and the details happen to be quite onerous,” said Kevin Severns, who manages the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association, a member group of Sunkist Growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
But in the FDA’s view, just because a fruit or vegetable hasn’t had an outbreak traced to it doesn’t mean it can’t. Agency officials say they based their list of commodities that would be covered by the proposed produce standards on research as to which foods are commonly eaten raw. Consumer advocates don’t think the list is long enough. Kale, which can be chopped to make a raw salad, and figs are exempt, for example.