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Feds may revise rules for irrigation water

Complaints from farmers nationwide have encouraged the Food and Drug Administration to take the almost unheard of act of revising landmark food safety laws that were scheduled to take effect soon, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service food safety expert. The act was signed into law by President Obama in 2011, but growers now have a second opportunity to provide input that might change the language on specifics before it is enacted.

“The new federal regulations would set standards for the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce for human consumption,” Dr. Juan Anciso, a horticulture specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said. “Of great concern to producers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley were those rules that dealt with irrigation water, because they irrigate from the river and there are microbes in it.”

According to the proposed rules on irrigation water, the FDA wanted to set an upper limit of 235 colony-forming E. coli cells per 100 milliliters of water, he said. Irrigation water sampled to have more than that would render the produce inedible and trigger a mandatory remedy for the water source.

While such rules might be workable for well water, they could not be fairly applied to surface water from the Rio Grande and canals that deliver it to fields, Anciso said.

Instead of arguing whether 235 units made for good or bad irrigation water, Anciso and others from Texas and California presented scientific research showing that E. coli counts varied widely in water, but most importantly that after five days in a field, those E. coli counts dropped dramatically.

The tests were done on spinach, which Anciso said naturally carries a higher bacterial load than other vegetables, likely because of its coarse texture.

“If waiting five days after irrigating to harvest works on spinach, it will work on other vegetable crops, including cantaloupe, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and others,” he said. “And it should work for growers throughout Texas, based on our climate, soils and grower practices.”

“This latest comment period ends Dec. 15,” he said. “The law should become effective in late 2015.”

Please click here for more information and to view the FDA fact sheets for the 550-page proposed regulations.
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