(UPDATED COVERAGE, Feb. 28) In the wake of foodbornce illness outbreaks over the past two years, the Food and Drug Administration is increasing inspection of cantaloupe farms and testing more of the fruit for pathogens.
Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Colorado, North Carolina and Indiana cantaloupe in 2011 and 2012 sickened 400 and killed 36. The FDA released a letter Feb. 25 to cantaloupe grower-shippers, packers and processors, on the new food safety checks, said Michael Landa, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Citing continuing concerns with Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella, Landa said the FDA intends to start inspections with a sampling component at what the agency called a “subset” of cantaloupe packinghouses in the U.S.
“Our investigations in these outbreaks and in follow-up to (a Listeria monocytogenes) cantaloupe sample result revealed, in part, multiple findings of insanitary production, handling conditions and practices in packinghouses,” according to the letter.
After reading the FDA letter, Steve Patricio, co-founder of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., said the increased FDA inspections make sense. The rise of many new local melon deals throughout the country, including the East and Southeast, have complicated oversight food safety responsibilities for the FDA, said Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. Some of those newer operators are doing things in ways they shouldn’t, he said.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said. “I think FDA knows what they are doing and they are going to be addressing it.”
Cantaloupe field packing is the norm in California and Arizona, with just one cantaloupe packing shed in California and one in Arizona, he said.
The FDA noted that it issued a letter to the cantaloupe industry in 2011 about the listeria-linked outbreak and acknowledged that many cantaloupe industry organizations have taken actions to address food safety issues.
“The aim of these inspections is in part to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify insanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers,” Landa said in the letter.
The agency said regulators will take “action as needed” to protect the public health. Landa said the FDA will continue to target imported cantaloupes at the border for sampling and perhaps undertake other inspection activities.