NYSSA, Ore. — A grower-owned nonprofit company chartered in 2009 continues to raise the profile of food safety in the Treasure Valley.

Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce Inc., and manager of Certified Onions Inc., a group of Treasure Valley onion shippers committed to comprehensive pesticide testing and certification, said a recent trade mission to Asia is helping get the word out to export partners about the valley’s stringent food safety standards.

“It’s difficult for us to be competitive with Washington, because of the freight difference,” he said. “I hope the added reassurance of this helps.”

Similarly, Certified Onions is working to get the word out to domestic buyers, too, Riley said. Companies that belong to Certified advertise it on invoices, bills of lading and other materials, with more to come.

“We haven’t put it on packaging yet, but we probably ought to,” he said. “The word of mouth is out there, but not to the point where retailers and foodservice are asking about it.”

Certified Onions’ testing could give Treasure Valley onions an edge over China among some export customers, said Bob Komoto, sales manager of Ontario-based Ontario Produce Co. Inc.

“There’s some concern in the export market that product they’re getting from China is not meeting expectations,” Komoto said.

This year, Certified Onions will likely begin testing for pathogens in addition to pesticides, he said.

Ontario-based Baker Packing Co., another Certified Onions member, has been pleased since it made the switch from Primus Labs to U.S. Department of Agriculture third-party certification, said Bill Trask, the company’s controller.

“The advantage we see in USDA is they’re a recognized governing body, and they deal with issues on a national level,” Trask said. “You’re only as credible as the organization you work with.”

Steve Baker, a Baker Packing co-owner, said the industry should do a better job highlighting the fact that onions have been put at the top of some lists of the safest vegetables.

Traceability, said Jerry Baker, Baker Packing’s owner, is now a necessity of doing business.

“People used to say, ‘I’m not going to do it — get your onions somewhere else,’” Baker said. “Those days are over.”

For the first time ever, Fort Boise Produce LLC and its growers will be 100% GAP or Primus third-party certified in 2010, said Joe Farmer, the company’s operations manager.

The company also boasts 100% traceability on all of its shipments, Farmer said.

Unfortunately for onion shippers, they often get lumped in with green onion shippers in buyers’ minds, and thus are held to different food safety standards, Farmer said.

Champion Produce Inc., Parma, Idaho, which also is a member of Certified Onions, sees continual growth in its food safety program, said John Wong, the company’s sales manager.

Wong sees a real marketing advantage in the use of the COI stamp of approval on onion packaging. To him, it carries similar weight as the USDA stamp on packaged meat.

All of the growers the company represents are third-party audited, with traceability down to the individual package, Wong said.

The burden of the costs of a comprehensive food safety program is borne primarily by suppliers, not buyers, Wong said.

It’s hard to pass the costs along, he said. But woe unto those shippers who aren’t willing to bear those costs.

“There aren’t companies who will buy from you because you have it, but there are ones who won’t buy from you if you don’t,” he said.

Comprehensive food safety guidelines are coming, Wong said — whether it’s from the industry or the federal government. He just hopes it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach.