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Under the radar lobbying: How food suppliers are pushing back on safety regs

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Among the many groups pushing for exemption from new food safety rules meant to prevent outbreaks of deady bacteria are a group of dry bulb onion farmers from Idaho and Oregon.

"To date there has never been a documented food safety issue with dry bulbs. Onions have a protective covering and curing process that greatly reduce food safety risks," wrote a cluster of at least 47 onion farmers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last May. "Onions are never consumed without first being peeled. Because of these factors we feel that dry bulb onions should be exempt." The group of identically-worded comments was picked up by an analysis using Sunlight's Docket Wrench tool, which synthesizes federal regulatory data.

The wording, according to a press report, came from Candi Fitch, the executive director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, who also serves as the state's fruit and vegetable association. Earlier this year, Fitch urged  farmers gathered at a conference to make their voices heard with the FDA and suggested the language that showed up in the letters. Fitch did not return requests for comment.

The Colorado-based National Onion Association has also jumped into the fray. Onion growers contend that proposed safety standards for irrigation water in the new rules are unreasonable and would hurt their businesses, and have taken their arguments to Congress. Comments submitted to the FDA provide a more legalistic version of onion farmers' position on why onions are different from other crops.

On their own, onion growers are not a major lobby in Washington. But they have joined forces with a more powerful group in the push to slow down implementation of the new food safety law. The National Onion Association was one of a long list of trade associations representing different crop groups that signed on to a letter organized by United Fresh. The trade association representing the produce industry asked that the FDA extend the comment period on some of the new rules-- a request that the FDA granted in April. The onion group often signs on to United Fresh's lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. United Fresh has spent more than half a million dollars on lobbying this year alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The cluster of comments from onion growers foreshadows what the FDA can expect now that it has extended the comment periods for food safety regulations yet again until November. Thousands of comments will pour in, many of them organized by outside groups--a point not necessarily obvious without analysis by tools like Docket Wrench, which can detect similarity in language used within a large group of documents. The tool helps detect the choreographed campaigns surrounding a food safety law that Congress passed three years ago in response to illness outbreaks caused by bacteria-infested produce, such as E. coli in spinach. Though the law passed in 2010, may of its key provisions are stuck in the regulation-writing process, where the influence of food industry groups appear to far outweigh that of consumers.

The FDA has been so slow to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act that in July a federal court ordered the agency to comply with a strict schedule for publishing final regulations. The FDA has challenged that ruling, and the next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28. Meanwhile, pressure from agricultural groups led to the inclusion of language in the House-passed farm bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., that would delay the food safety regulations further. Congress has not come to agreement on a final farm bill.

It was about a year after Congress approved the food safety bill that the FDA sent five proposed regulations to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which has become a routine process for significant federal regulations. There they were the subject of meetings with outside groups, dominated by industry representatives.  There sat there until January 2013, when the FDA published two of the proposals in the Federal Register and opened them for comment. Those two rules deal with new standards for farms growing produce and for processors that handle fruit and vegetables.

In late July, the FDA published another pair of regulations dealing with safety concerns with imported food, one dealing with standards for food importers, the other with accreditation of third parties to monitor safety of foreign food imports. A fifth rule, dealing with food destined for animal consumption, remains under review at OIRA. The FDA is still developing two more rules, one on sanitary transport and the other meant to protect food from terrorist or other harmful attacks remain in development at the agency, which has asked for more time to complete them.  

Follow proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations on Docket Wrench

Comments are due November 2013

  • Food processors. Requires food processors to have written food safety plans.
  • Food growers. Establishes science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce.
  • Foreign suppliers. Requires importers to verify that food meets same level of public health protection as that required of domestic food producers.
  • Third party accreditation. Establishes a program to accredit auditors to conduct food safety audits and certify foreign facilities as meeting food safety standards.

Under review by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs--not yet published for comment

  • Animal consumption. Establishes preventive controls to ensure that commercial food for animals, including pets, is safe.

Under development at FDA 

(Photo credit: iStockphoto.com)