FDA Onion Regulation Has No Safety Benefits

August 19, 2014

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a regulation to limit the amount of E. coli in irrigation water for foods that a person might consume raw. That might sound good, writes Jared Meyer of Economics21, except that most onion farmers would be considered out of compliance with the rule, despite the fact that onions are at no risk of being contaminated by E. coli from irrigation.

Clinton Shock, a professor at Oregon State University, conducted an assessment of onions and E. coli, determining that E. coli posed no risk to onions, no matter how much E. coli bacteria was found in irrigation water. Compliance with the FDA's rule would not only be unnecessary, but it would impose costs on onion farmers:

  • Farmers would have to test irrigation water weekly for E. coli levels. If the levels were too high, they would have to stop watering crops.
  • Onions rely on steady watering, and halting irrigation could cut crop yields significantly.

The FDA has also proposed forcing onion farmers to use plastic, instead of wooden, crates, despite research also indicating that wooden crates do not pose an E. coli risk. Replacing 1 million wooden crates with plastic crates, writes Meyer, would cost $200 million. Despite being three times as expensive as a wooden crate, a plastic crate holds only half the weight of a wooden crate. On top of these costs, Meyer notes that transitioning to plastic crates would require remodeling of the buildings where onions are stored, because the crates need more air circulation. 

Meyer suggests an "outcome-based" oversight approach, rather than imposing regulation on the front end, by holding farmers accountable for contaminated foods that sicken consumers. Companies understand that producing contaminated food is not a desirable business model. Instead, the FDA is proposing regulations that will only raise the costs of onion production, hurting farmers and consumers.

Source: Jared Meyer, "Manhattan Moment: A new layer of regulation would boost cost of onions but not safety," Washington Examiner, August 14, 2014; Jared Meyer, "Consumers May Like Onions, But the FDA Doesn't," Economics21, August 7, 2014. 

 

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