For decades, America’s farmers, ranchers, and fruit growers have become grudgingly accustomed to dealing with onerous regulatory schemes emanating from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But now the people who grow apples, pears, and other tree fruits have a new tormentor: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Best known for its regulation of pharmaceuticals, the FDA has now set its sights on orchards. To the horror of growers from Florida to Oregon, the FDA is proposing strict new food-safety standards that many growers are convinced will put them out of business.

Among other things, the FDA is proposing requiring growers to conduct regular testing of irrigation water, sanitize canvas fruit-picking bags, and keep animals away from crops. The torrent of regulations about to rain down on the tree-fruit industry is the single biggest intrusion Washington has undertaken into the business practices of the nation’s orchards.

The FDA’s action is rooted in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, in which Congress and the Obama Administration mandated a sweeping overhaul of the regulations governing everything from orchard management and foreign imports to processing plants.

Essentially, the new law instructs the FDA to develop a regulatory framework that will prevent food-borne diseases. Traditionally, FDA has dealt with such diseases after they have broken out. The laws, and the subsequent regulations being drafted at the FDA, barely differentiate between apples and pears, which have a nearly flawless safety record, and spinach and cantaloupes, which have, on rare occasions, caused deadly outbreaks

Fruit-tree farmers already have to comply with state standards, industry-wide best practices, and strict safety requirements from retailers. For some growers, the prospect of having to answer to Washington bureaucrats, few if any of whom have any experience in growing fruit trees commercially, is troubling.

“Somebody in an office in Washington, DC, who’s never stepped foot off concrete has decided we need this rule and that rule,” Leslie Judd, who oversees 350 acres of apples, cherries, and pears in Washington’s Yakima Valley, told the Washington Post (April 8). “The market has already taken care of this problem, if it’s a problem. Which it isn’t.”

The FDA estimates the cost of its new regulations at $430 million annually, or between $5,000 and $30,000 per farm, depending on size. Whatever the costs turn out to be, they will ultimately be passed on to consumers. Hoping to avoid the mass shutdown of fruit-tree operations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Fresh Produce Association are urging the FDA to redraft its proposed regulations.

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