If onions, not the green ones but the ones suited for burgers, stews and soups, are a part of your diet, you have a stake in the current effort to persuade the federal Food and Drug Administration to change proposed regulations about irrigating those onions.

Even if you skip the onions, you have a stake: They’re an important part of this state’s agricultural economy.

Farmers in Eastern Oregon and Idaho grow about a quarter of the bulb onions — the ones with a papery skin on the outside — sold in this country. They irrigate their crops with surface water, which is more likely to be tainted with E. coli than well water would be.

Now the FDA, working to put new fresh produce safety rules in place, has proposed water cleanliness standards that would make growing onions here too expensive to be feasible.

The agency has reason to be concerned about food-borne illnesses such as E. coli infection, particularly on things like lettuce, spinach and cantaloupe, which are generally served raw.

They can pick up E. coli bacteria from irrigation water as well as from improper handling in the field and elsewhere. And while the FDA cannot assure proper handling 100 percent of the time, it hopes strict new rules on irrigation water will help.

All that makes perfect sense — to a point. But bulb onions, while they can be eaten raw, are not handled the way lettuce is, and the difference is crucial.

Bulb onions, you see, are cured in the field before they’re ever sent to market, a process that an Oregon State University scientist has found leaves the onions E. coli free. In addition, the papery outer skin is virtually always removed before the onions are eaten.

The FDA has gotten plenty of pushback from onion growers on the proposed changes, so much so that it is accepting comments on them even after its Nov. 22 deadline — though it’s unclear if a second formal comment period is what the agency has in mind.

That’s good news. Onion growers have science on their side, and they need to be given time to make their case to the FDA.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.