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Onion non-profit corporation focuses on food safety

by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar | September 01, 2009
In a proactive measure to ensure the integrity of onions grown in Idaho- Eastern Oregon's Treasure Valley, concerned shippers recently joined forces to form the non-profit Certified Onions Inc.

According to corporate President Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, OR, the impetus behind the new company, which incorporated June 24, was twofold.

Noting that the membership of Certified Onions Inc. is comprised of numerous Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee member sheds, Mr. Riley stated that the two entities are completely separate.

"Many of our members are part of the Federal Marketing Order 958, which deals with grade standards and quality," he told The Produce News Aug. 20. "COI, however, is food-safety driven, and we want to make sure all laws are being adhered to."

The reason for incorporating as a non-profit was "for the message that we are not seeking specific gain and will not make any money doing this." Through stringent testing by the Oregon Department of Agriculture for off- label pesticide use as well as random maximum residue levels testing, COI is providing its members with third-party certification in both the field and the shed.

"We are in partnership with the ODA," Mr. Riley continued. "Its labs are internationally recognized, and there are several Asian countries that will accept U.S. onions only if they are tested by ODA."

Currently, the corporation lists 17 members, and Mr. Riley said that each would test 100 percent of its onions in 2009.

"We are also doing some testing for individuals that are not members on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Serving as vice president and treasurer for the corporation is Garry Bybee, chief executive officer of Fiesta Farms in Nyssa, OR. Mr. Bybee concurred with the non-profit aspect of COI, saying, "This is a safety issue, not a profit issue. We are here to protect the quality of Treasure Valley onions, and we are looking to rebuild integrity within our own industry."

He went on to say, "We believe that it's only a matter of time before the [Food & Drug Administration] imposes standards on onions, and we want to set those standards now. I believe we will succeed."

Mr. Bybee also explained that COI is an Oregon corporation, which gives the Oregon Department of Agriculture testing authority over Idaho member shippers.

The testing procedures by ODA include field identification, in which each field will be assigned a location number and GPS coordinate. Sampling was to begin 10 days prior to harvest, and the Treasure Valley is now harvesting its 2009 crop.

ODA is pulling a sample from each field using established hyper geometric tables for the random testing. If no detection is found, the product is certified.

If a test comes back positive, no certification will be allowed until retesting is completed and samples test negative. And, according to COI literature, each onion color will require a separate sample form to include field identification, color and acreage.

COI Secretary John Wong, president of Champion Produce Sales in Parma, ID, said that the group "saw a good opportunity to organize this non-profit and lead our industry into the future."

Mr. Wong added, "As food-safety requirements continue to change rapidly, we want to make sure we keep our edge."