Mar 8, 2013
Cantaloupe groups gain traction on safety

The only way to go is up.

Still smarting from a deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., in 2011, followed the next year by a salmonella outbreak tied to unsanitary conditions at Chamberlain Farms Produce in Owensville, Ind., the cantaloupe industry has been trying to regain lost ground while shoring up food safety gaps.

In the Jensen Farms outbreak, 30 deaths were reported, a woman miscarried and 146 people were infected. A total of 262 people were sickened, with three deaths reported, in connection with the Indiana farm’s cantaloupe.

The Indiana incident hadn’t even happened when an industry initiative to develop new, commodity-specific food safety guidelines for cantaloupes and other netted melons got underway in 2012. Meeting in weekly Web sessions, participants from throughout industry and academia developed a guidance document that is posted online (www.cantaloupe-guidance.org).

“It’s very consistent with what FDA’s produce safety rules require,” said Dave Gombas, a National Cantaloupe Guidance facilitation team member and senior vice president for food safety and technology with United Fresh Produce Association. “There’s very much more of a commodity-specific tone to it.”

Still, varying regions and operations have different needs, and Gombas said, “each operator should take the national guidance as a starting point.”

California holding own

California cantaloupe growers voted to approve a mandatory marketing order last winter, agreeing to participate in government-based food safety validation and auditing paid for by assessments on themselves.

Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, said the audits began partway through California’s early May-Nov. 1 growing season.

“The early end of our season was not included, which is the Imperial Valley,” Patricio said. “But then by July, when we moved up into the San Joaquin Valley, audits began.”

Deemed informational to start, the audits served to help fine-tune the metrics growers should be following. That led to a redraft of the state’s cantaloupe guidance, which Patricio said is specific to conditions in California. In January, he was expecting to
hear back from USDA on the guidance “any day.”
In the meantime, Patricio said sales were “excellent” for 2012.

“The buy side seemed to acknowledge that rather than go to these new, less mature districts that have cantaloupes for sale, they should go to the (growers with a) history of safe product and weather and climate and conditions that are less conducive to the spread of pathogens, even if they are there,” Patricio said. “There were some low points, but I’d say the averages were above the past few years.”

Association takes root

Concerned over the outbreaks in Indiana and Colorado, a group of cantaloupe growers in Georgia and Indiana decided last summer that they needed to take action to enhance consumer confidence in cantaloupe. The season for growers south of Indiana and Virginia was over by the time the Chamberlain Farms outbreak occurred. But the timing was devastating to other growers in Indiana.

“They basically shut down,” said Charles Hall, acting executive director of the fledgling Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA) and executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “Many of the retailers would not buy melons – even watermelons – from Indiana.”

ECGA held an organizational meeting in January, with about 20 farms represented. Besides the initial growers in Indiana and Georgia, farmers from North Carolina, Florida and Illinois also expressed interest.

“I think we’ll see, once we get things kicked off, a broad section of growers through the East Coast,” Hall said.
The group was also set to meet with retail buyers in February.

“I think they’re looking for some confidence in the industry, so they know when they buy the melons they have been grown under good safety conditions,” Hall said.

The group isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, but is drawing on the guidance developed nationally and in California. Members must undergo Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) audits and also submit to one unannounced audit during each packing season.

Rebuilding a brand

In Colorado, it’s hardly business as usual. Growers were sent into a tailspin in the wake of the contamination traced to machinery and pooled water in a packing shed at Jensen Farms. While 90 miles away from Rocky Ford, the Rocky Ford name was attached to the product and made the headlines.

As a result, Rocky Ford growers formed their own association. They have limited membership to growers in the immediate area, trademarked the name and agreed to adhere to a common set of best practices.

Cantaloupe acreage was substantially scaled back in 2012 – from the previous high of between 1,700 and 1,800 to about 280 acres in 2012.

“Some of the farmers, they just didn’t want to risk growing cantaloupes in 2012,” said Michael Hirakata of Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford.

The growers felt fortunate to sell everything they grew, however. Partner Glenn Hirakata said support from the state with advertising and promotion to get the word out about the growers’ commitment to safety and enactment of new measures helped.

“I think consumers from this time last year to this time this year are more positive and receptive,” Glenn Hirakata said.

Michael Hirakata hopes to see an additional 120 to 130 acres planted with cantaloupe in Rocky Ford in 2013. However, there’s another factor at play – significant threat of severe drought – that may put a crimp in that.

“If we didn’t have to struggle, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves,” he said. “It’s just the next hurdle in the road.”

Kathy Gibbons

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