Mar 19, 2012
Experts, leaders target cantaloupe safety

One day. One hundred experts. One issue with exponentially greater implications.

In a nutshell, those were the bones of the “Cantaloupe: Food Safety Priorities” meeting coordinated by the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at the University of California, Davis in January. Scheduled in the wake of the 2011 listeria outbreak in cantaloupes, characterized as “the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in over 25 years” by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the gathering had a very specific purpose.

“The industry needed to come together to talk about the events of last fall with cantaloupes, and to talk about, going forward, what we might do to improve as an industry,” said Robert Whitaker, chief science officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

The meeting was closed to media coverage, and attendance was limited to 100. The idea was to get representatives from government, public health, education and research in the same room with growers, packers, shippers and retailers – in a setting where they could speak freely and frankly, and come away with a roadmap to ultimately improve cantaloupe food safety.

“We were able to bring so many parts of the supply chain together,” said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, CPS executive director. “I think that was probably the biggest benefit.”

Job 1: Training

Early sessions set the stage by examining the nuts and bolts of the outbreak itself and reviewing the science already at hand in terms of safe procedures. Later pieces had the groups participating in breakout sessions and coming up with action plans to take away from the day.
Whitaker said that as a result, three areas of focus going forward were identified.

The first? Training.

It’s not that there isn’t already a body of knowledge and guidelines available. It just isn’t necessarily getting to those who need to know it.

“There is science that’s available … that has been generated by research in the scientific community and has been available to at least take care of some standard things,” said Trevor Suslow, UC-Davis Extension research specialist. “If they’re not already utilizing and implementing that, we have to do a better job getting it out there and available.”

Suslow noted some of that type of training probably fell by the wayside due to tepid response when programs were previously offered.

A steering committee was formed that will use trade associations and university Extension programs domestically and abroad to educate cantaloupe growers.

Job 2: Guidance

Discussions also revealed that there are holes in data in relation to cantaloupe that need to be filled. A steering committee was formed to meet monthly and deliver a new netted-melon-specific guidance document by the end of July.

“Because listeria is a new event for this (cantaloupe) industry, until we fill in some of those holes, there will be continued misperceptions of what could happen … where the history of consumption doesn’t support that (being) the case,” Suslow said. “But you can’t just tell people, ‘We haven’t had outbreaks before…'”

While various documents have been issued regarding general good agricultural practices in the last 15 years or so, Whitaker said, the listeria and recent incidents with salmonella associated with cantaloupes suggest a need for reevaluation.

“The resolution at the meeting in January was again to ask the trade associations to get together and to determine the best mechanism for a transparent and inclusive process so that stakeholders can participate from around the different growing regions, both domestic and exports to the U.S., to develop guidance for growers and handlers for cantaloupe specifically,” Whitaker said. “Cantaloupes are physically very different from smooth-skinned melons, and therefore may represent different risk profiles.”

Job 3: Research

Included in the Center for Produce Safety’s 2012 Request for Proposals is a section targeted specifically at cantaloupes. Points identified during the January gathering where research is most needed include the role – and then control – of biofilms in packing; post-harvest pathogen reduction protocols; and quantitative risk assessment to determine the prevalence of listeria and salmonella in production and distribution.

“The tenor of what we discussed was looking at cantaloupe-specific products and supply,” said Fernandez-Fenaroli.
Proposals are due by April 1, when they’ll be reviewed to determine those that might be funded.

Hands-on history

This isn’t the first time that industry leaders and experts have rallied to help resolve a food safety issue. Similar participation occurred in 2006, after the E. coli outbreak associated with spinach. The tomato industry rallied after problems developed out of summer production of tomatoes in the eastern United States.

“Those activities raised awareness across the supply chain,” Whitaker said. “All foods, not just produce, have specific risks associated with them for contamination.
“The question is: How do you manage those risks to make them as safe as possible for consumers?”

And Whitaker said that by participating in the solution, rather than being on the receiving end of rules and edicts they did not help create, the industry – and consumers – will benefit.

“I worked at a company that processed leafy greens before I went to PMA, and what I saw is handlers, growers, people who buy the product, getting together to come up with something on their own rather than being told what to do,” Whitaker said. “So, they actually own these metrics, and as we learn more about the science, they can change that to reflect their best knowledge.

“And that is what those activities did. They got people together and made them think about what they are doing on a daily basis. In a lot of cases, business practices changed – and continue to change today, as we learn more about the science.”

It’s a worthwhile approach, according to Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection with FDA.
“The recent listeriosis outbreak was a catastrophic event, and there was very frank discussion among industry participants about the urgent and critical need to work together, with FDA and state regulators, to ensure that there is not a repeat occurrence,” Farrar said via email. “We have committed to work closely with the cantaloupe industry in these efforts.”

By Kathy Gibbons, Editorial Director

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