When the U.S. melon sector looks back on 2011, it is unlikely to be remembered as a vintage year. While world economic markets continued to face difficulties, the sector experienced its own crash in the form of September’s deadly listeria outbreak. Eventually linked to contaminated cantaloupes from Granada, Colo.-based Jensen Farms, the bacteria claimed the lives of 32 people and sickened 146 others across 28 states.
Steven Wright, director of produce and floral for Tops Friendly Market, which operates in New York and Pennsylvania, says the outbreak “basically destroyed” the category for months.
“Consumers not only lost faith in cantaloupes, but honeydews, watermelon, and the cut-fruit equivalents of each,” he says.
Although Wright says Tops’ melon sales had rebounded strongly by March 2012, damage to the category had already been done. “Until that time, we were 40% down every week,” he says.
Likewise, Patrick Morris, buyer for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Enterprises LLC, says despite a great deal of marketing undertaken at the time of the outbreak to preempt concerns, sales “tanked right away.” The Rouses Markets chain comprises more than 30 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“Once we got consumers in our area educated as to our sources for cantaloupes, they came back, but it took a couple of months,” he says.
Dan Andrews, owner of Dan Andrews Farms in Bakersfield, Calif., says the consequences of the outbreak were “devastating, both individually and for the cantaloupe industry as a whole.”
“Consumer confidence dropped to all-time low levels, and retailers pulled cantaloupe off the shelves for a short time, then gradually restocked,” he says.
However, it was not only smaller growers that were affected. Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, Coral Gables, Fla., says the company’s melon sales were also affected.
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