A proposed rule by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would drastically increase costs for American onion farmers and consumers, without any improvement in public safety. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident of government overreach — regulation for the sake of regulation is fast becoming the norm in Washington.
The proposed regulation, stemming from the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, would limit E. coli levels in irrigation water for any foods that could be consumed raw. This sounds like a justified reason for government action since E. coli outbreaks have the potential to sicken consumers. There’s just one problem: Onions are not subject to E. coli contamination from irrigation.
According to a thorough field study led by Oregon State University professor Clinton Shock, there is absolutely no risk of E. coli contamination in onions from irrigation water, regardless of method used or bacteria levels in the water. This confirms what farmers and their customers have long known.
Complying with this regulation would have substantial financial consequences for farmers. They would need to test their irrigation water weekly and stop watering if E. coli levels were too high, even though it would pose no danger to consumers. Onions are finicky, and even a small break in irrigation could drastically reduce crop yields.
Instead of dictating the production process, as the FDA is trying to do, smarter regulation would focus on outcomes. The government’s supposed motivation is to limit E. coli outbreaks. Why not simply hold companies liable for any harm they inflict?
This outcome-based oversight is how businesses police themselves, and they see much better results. Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, Ore., told Capital Press that his customers have required him to test his produce for E. coli and salmonella for several years. Is it any surprise that his customers do not want to sell contaminated produce to their customers? Despite the claims of regulation advocates, it is not a smart business model for companies to sicken or kill their customers.
Another even more pointless FDA regulation would require onion farmers to use plastic crates instead of the wooden ones they have been using for years. Thankfully, OSU researchers decided to test the merits of this rule as well. They filled new, bleached plastic crates and two-decade-old wooden ones with onions and then tested them for E. coli. No traces of the bacteria were found on the onions from the wooden crates.
Instead of regulating nonexistent problems, the FDA needs to stop imposing unnecessary costs on farmers and consumers. Replacing a million wooden crates with plastic ones would cost about $200 million — money that could have been invested, creating more jobs, instead of wasted. Plastic crates hold only about half the weight of wooden ones and cost nearly three times as much. Additionally, produce storage buildings would need to be remodeled because the plastic crates are smaller and need more air circulation.
Higher costs of onion production would mean that Americans would have to pay more for onions, a staple of American cooking. That would add to everyone’s grocery bills, disproportionately affecting the low-income Americans who spend a higher percentage of their earnings on groceries.
The FDA is reviewing the proposed rules in light of the new scientific evidence and is set to issue a revised regulation by the end of summer, but they need to do more than that. The FDA should focus its efforts on paring back its grip on businesses, not searching for more places to apply its heavy-handed regulation. Regulations crafted inside the Beltway have far-reaching, real effects on the rest of America — often for the worse.Jared Meyer is a policy analyst at Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. You can follow him on Twitter here.