US (OR): Researcher lands high-stakes food safety grant on onions

An Oregon State University professor just landed a high-stakes grant to study a food safety issue pitting the feds against onion farmers.

Farmers fear their future could be threatened by a Food and Drug Administration proposal clamping down on microbes in irrigation water. Oregon onion growers rely on surface water for irrigation. Out in the open, it gets contaminated. Growers say harmful organisms are killed when the onions are cured, partly by exposure to ultra violet rays. The FDA isn't so sure.

Joy Waite-Cusic, assistant professor at OSU, she just landed a $68,000 grant from the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis. She plans to use the money to study the effect of contaminated irrigation water on onions. Specifically, the goal is to find out whether Salmonella and E. coli survive the curing process. If they don't, as the growers contend, the industry could snag a water-quality waiver from the FDA.

She came up with the idea while on conference calls with farmers and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The ODA solicited comments for the FDA on the proposed produce rule. The agency has given the public until Nov. 15 to comment on the proposal, which will set standards for irrigation water and require testing. If that rule, as written now, went into effect, it could devastate Oregon onion growers, said Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa.

Waite-Cusic plans to grow onions from seed in an OSU greenhouse and irrigate them with water contaminated with Salmonella and generic E. coli. She'll then cure the onions, the way Oregon growers do by exposing them to ultra violet rays, and test for microbes. The FDA is especially concerned about Salmonella, which is hardier than E. coli, she said. Salmonella sicken an estimated 42,000 people every year in the United States and kill 400, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon's onion growers point out that they've never had an outbreak associated with their crop. And regular tests of bulbs have failed to find pathogens, Riley said. "We've been doing water sampling and bulb testing and we've never had a positive for E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella," Riley said.

"The FDA wants evidence," she said. "We hope to provide evidence."

Source: oregonlive.com

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