(UPDATED COVERAGE, Aug. 10) Burch Equipment LLC, which recalled 188,900 athena cantaloupes because of possible listeria contamination, announced a week later the notice specified the wrong variety — the implicated cantaloupes are caribbean golds.
Burch officials corrected the notice on the Food and Drug Administration website seven days after the initial July 28 recall of about 5,200 cantaloupes. On Aug. 3 they revealed the variety was incorrect in the original notice and in the Aug. 2 notice expanding the recall.
No illnesses have been reported, but it can take up to two months for listeria symptoms to develop after exposure, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The melons shipped July 15-27 to 10 states. A random sample taken at a Hannaford Supermarket in New York by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program tested positive for listeria and sparked the initial recall.
Burch expanded the recall after inspectors found “unsanitary conditions at the cantaloupe packing shed during FDA’s ongoing inspection that may allow for contamination of cantaloupes with listeria monocytogenes,” the grower’s recall notice states.
FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy said the agency’s investigation is ongoing and therefore she cannot comment on specific details. She said investigators have been at the growing and packing operation in Faison, N.C., to collect test samples, but results were not available as of Aug. 9.
Caribbean gold cantaloupes have a much longer shelf life than athenas and could therefore pose a longer-term threat to consumers who may still have them, said Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist at the University of California-Davis and volunteer at the Center for Produce Safety.
Tracking the mistake
Jimmy Burch Jr., of Burch Equipment LLC, Faison, N.C., said a government inspector made the error about the variety of melons being recalled while filling out a form during collection of the random test sample in New York.
“The FDA was breathing down our necks so hard and threatening legal action when my dad was proofreading the notice they sent, he just read over the word athena and didn’t notice it was the wrong variety,” Burch said Aug. 6. “There’s still only one melon that has tested positive.”
Jimmy Burch Sr. said Aug. 8 that officials at a North Carolina grocery store chain made the mistake.
“(They) prepared the statement for me to issue. I missed it (the athena reference) when I read it. I signed it and then the FDA and (the retailer) went back and forth,” the elder Burch said.
A spokeswoman for the retailer said she checked the paper trail and the chain did not prepare or send a recall notice to Burch. She said the supplier provided the grocery chain a preview copy of the recall notice.
Officials from the chain’s food safety team reviewed the notice, which specified athena cantaloupes. They made minor edits “from the consumer perspective” and sent the notice back to the supplier, the spokeswoman said Aug. 9.
FDA’s spokeswoman said she could not comment on specifics of how the Burch recall notice was developed. El-Hinnawy said the standard process for a voluntary recall is for FDA to “work with the recalling company to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make the right choices.”
In the expanded recall notice, Burch warned retailers and consumers that some of its cantaloupes carried stickers from Cottle Strawberry Inc., Faison, N.C.
Cottle and its crops are not included in the recall. Jimmy Burch Jr. said the Burch packing shed ran out of their own stickers and had some Cottle stickers with the same Price Look-Up code, so they used them.
“We shouldn’t have done that, but we had an order we needed to get out. We won’t do that again,” Burch said of the Cottle stickers.
Jerry Buczek, chief operations officer at Cottle, confirmed Burch had Cottle’s permission to use the stickers. However, he stressed the two operations are not related in any way. They do not share packing facilities and do not have any joint growing operations.
“When the recall came out, we notified our retailers that none of our fruit was involved,” Buczek said. “As an extra precaution, we sampled our own crop and no positive results came back for any pathogens.”
“We’re running business as usual as much as we can,” Jimmy Burch Jr. said.
“At the point they notified us about the positive listeria test on the one melon, we had already shipped everything for the season.”
Burch Farms shipped the recalled cantaloupes to retailers in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina. The initial recall notice July 28 said they were shipped to Maine and New York.
In a July 30 warning to consumers and retailers, the Food and Drug Administration said “the cantaloupes were packed in sweet potato cartons,” but Jimmy Burch Jr. said Aug. 6 the farm uses sweet potato bins for field-harvesting of cantaloupes.
The FDA issued a one-sentence update Aug. 10 regarding the sweet potato cartons: "Upon further in-depth investigation, the FDA has determined and confirmed with Burch Equipment LLC that the firm did not, in fact, ship cantaloupe packed into sweet potato cartons."
Jimmy Burch Sr. said this recall is the first safety problem they’ve ever had with their cantaloupes. Burch Farms has been growing cantaloupes for five years. It planted about 115 acres for this season. He said they use SaniDate sanitizer in their packing shed water as part of their food safety program.