GRANGER, Wash. — As they return from lunch, laborers dutifully wash their hands in a double sink before resuming harvest in an adjacent orchard full of Pacific Rose apples. A quality control supervisor perched on a tractor watches from about 30 yards away.
Another employee at Jones Farms said the hand-washing requirement surprised some at first.
“‘What, I have to wash my hands?’” manager Hector Dominguez said, quoting workers. “Sure. So, it takes time to make everybody do that. But now it’s pretty simple.”
Orchard workers everywhere better get used to more than hand-washing. Federal administrators are getting ready to implement a wide array of food safety standards that will set new farming guidelines for everything from irrigation water quality to pet control.
Growers, packers and officials in Washington’s $2.5 billion dollar tree-fruit industry have balked at some of the suggested federal regulations, calling them unnecessary, costly and burdensome.
“We’ve believed they’ve taken a wrong turn at the outset,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents both growers and shippers on trade and regulatory issues.
Expectations for cleanliness in food production get higher every year as retail stores — and therefore warehouses that supply them — demand sanitation measures through a variety of market-driven standards across the globe.
About three years ago, Jones Farms, a diversified orchard and vegetable ranch between Granger and Zillah, signed on to one of the most popular, GlobalG.A.P., which stands for Good Agricultural Practices.
“It’s pretty intense,” said owner Dennis Jones.
To comply, Dominguez welded together five or six hand-washing stations the farm tows around from field to field on a trailer that also carries a porta-potty. Elsewhere, supervisors inspect workers’ hands for jewelry and scratches.
Jones suspects most farmers do the same, or something similar.
“I would bet you that 90 percent of apples growers, if not more, are already doing it,” he said.
Food has been getting safer and infection rates have dropped in the United States; incidents from six of the major pathogens have fallen 22 percent since 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Americans still get sick from what they eat. Each year, about one in six people fall ill from food-borne diseases, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, the CDC estimates.
In September 2011, a bacterial outbreak traced to melons in Colorado killed 33 people. Last week, the two farmers responsible announced they will plead guilty to federal charges of allowing tainted food to reach the market, which could result in hefty fines and even prison time.
The controversial Food Safety Modernization Act was already in place at the time of the outbreak. Congress passed the measure in 2010 and President Barack Obama signed it in January 2011, aiming to shift the focus from reacting to outbreaks to preventing them.
The law calls for the most sweeping changes to food sanitation in the past 70 years, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with implementation.
Passing the law was just the start. This year, the FDA drafted a lengthy list of proposed rules to put the specifics into action. The proposal for growing, harvesting, packing and storing of produce is 548 pages long.
The agency is accepting public comment on the proposed rules until Nov. 15.
Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that opposes industrial farming, has called for more funding for the FDA’s implementation efforts, as well as a new cabinet-level position to oversee all food safety, consolidating the work of the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and about 15 other agencies currently sharing the duty, according to a policy sheet on the group’s website.
But growers around the Yakima Valley and the state want the FDA to rewrite the proposed rules to be more crop-specific and start the public comment period over again. Directors of all 50 state agriculture departments concur.
The biggest complaint is that the rules treat all commodities the same, said Schlect.
For example, they forbid pets in fields and orchards for fear of contamination. But Yakima Valley’s apples, cherries and other tree fruit hang high off the ground, unlike lettuce or melons.
“Those crops, that are mainly grown on the ground ... they should have special attention given to them,” Schlect said.
Tree-fruit growers also object to the following:
• The rules as they are written now exempt small farms that only sell locally. If the law aims to improve public health, farms of all sizes should be treated the same, Schlect said.
• It’s impossible to eliminate every potential risk. The FDA should do more economic analysis to gauge how expensive the changes will be and if the expense is worth it, Schlect said. A total of 40,000 domestic farms would fall under the regulations, spending a collective $460 million each year complying, according to FDA estimates. That’s about $11,500 per farm.
• The draft rules call for testing the quality of any water that touches the food product, requiring standards similar to the Environmental Protection Agency’s qualifications for swimming water. For example, the bacteria E. coli cannot be higher than 235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters. Water in the canals of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District makes the cut, said Jim Trull, manager of the district.
But tree-fruit growers in the Valley, and throughout most of the West, worry a spill upstream they can’t control would cut off their supply under the proposed regulations. Even if farmers have drip irrigation, many use overhead sprinklers to cool apples in the heat of the summer to prevent sunburn.
• The rules as they are written now mandate sanitizing equipment. Many workers bring their own canvas picking bags and many packers use wooden bins. Do those count? Schlect wonders. He claims the proposed rules aren’t clear.
• As for hand-washing, the proposed rules demand it after every break, even — growers fear — when a worker leaves the orchard for a minute to grab a hat from his car. “Those are the kinds of things that are going to drive growers crazy,” Schlect said.
Many growers are already taking these measures because customers, and therefore retailers and warehouses, ask for them. Costco and Wal-Mart both have strict food safety standards of their own, one grower said. Most other chains do, too.
Those retailers carry a lot of weight, for sure, but the programs are still voluntary, giving discretion to the grower.
“The best part of those rules is they are not federal law,” Schlect said.
Throughout the world, five or six major voluntary food safety pacts govern sanitation. Private auditors, certified by the organizations that the support those standards, visit farms to inspect.
“Our guys are already moving in that direction,” said Debbie Carter, the technical issues manager for the Horticulture Council.
Kevin Riel of Harrah also subscribes to GlobalG.A.P., an international set of guidelines for pesticide use, fertilizer, water quality and worker training. In 1997, a group of British retailers came up with the standards in response to concerns about food safety. GlobalG.A.P. is now the world’s largest food assurance program.
Riel likes knowing he can quit when he wants.
“There may be some people won’t buy my product,” but at least the decision is his, he said.
Rob Valicoff, a Konnowoc Pass grower and packer, said the proposed rules don’t take into account how safe food already is.
“The other thing we need to ask is the consumer willing to pay more money for their food,” he said. “They’ve got the safest food in the world anyway.”
Valicoff figures setting up water filters for orchard irrigation water will push the price of fruit up by 20 or 25 percent, if you could install filters big enough. His pump 20,000 gallons per minute.
“Filtration systems would have to be huge,” he said.
In a 30-acre Buena orchard, George Carrillo watches across a draw while overhead sprinklers give his Golden Delicious apple trees one more dousing before the winter.
The sprinklers shoot high above the canopies, the streams reaching some 60 to 70 feet, letting water trickle though the leaves to the soil.
Carrillo has 7 acres with overhead sprinklers. He estimates it will cost about $12,000 to move those heads to the ground to shoot under the canopy, and he will have to think of some new way prevent sunburn in July and August.
“But we have to do it,” he said with a shrug.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.