California cantaloupe groups seek food safety research funds

11/10/2011 04:02:00 PM
Coral Beach

The California Melon Research Board reports the state grows 85% to 90% of all cantaloupe produced in the U.S. California ships about 28 million cartons of cantaloupe annually. There are about 120 California growers who have a total of 46,000 acres of cantaloupe.The California cantaloupe industry is calling for growers and handlers from around the world to put their money where their problems are and kick in for research to ensure food safety and restore consumer confidence in the wake of this fall’s deadly listeria outbreak.

The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and California Melon Research Board, both based in Dinuba, Calif., have each committed $100,000 toward the research. Steve Patricio, chairman of the advisory board, said the goal is to have a pool of $1 million for the Center for Produce Safety to use for the research.

“The scientists are telling us there should be two priorities,” Patricio said Nov. 10. “First we need better technology for rapid testing and then we need to find effective end-process kill steps.”

But the research projects are not set in stone. Patricio said industry stakeholders are scheduled to meet in January for a “frank and honest” brainstorming session. The Jan. 11 invitation-only meeting will also include a full-on plea for research funding from growers and handlers from other regions or the U.S. and the world.

“If everyone puts in a little for every case they handle, we can easily put together enough money to do the research we need,” said Patricio, who is also president and chief executive officer for Westside Produce in Firebaugh, Calif.

Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director for the Center for Produce Safety, said the center has set a Feb. 1 deadline for its call for proposals on the topic. A couple of factors have positioned researchers to get a running start after the specific projects are selected.

“In terms of the recent (listeria) outbreak, we really needed to know what the FDA found when they inspected the Colorado facility,” she said. “The report they published on the conditions there is crucial to examining the overall situation.

Data from the University of California has already been put to use by the Food and Drug Administration. Patricio said the agency’s guidance documents from 2005 to the present have included many of the practices suggested by California’s research.

“But they still need to put more teeth into (the guidance),” Patricio said.

Experts say the netted surface of cantaloupes is the perfect hiding place for bacterial pathogens. According to the FDA, from 1996 to 2008, there were 82 foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. associated with fresh produce. Of those, 10 were linked to cantaloupe. All of the cantaloupe outbreaks were due to bacterial agents. One key element shown by the California research is that the growing conditions in dry regions make it a good practice to field pack cantaloupe, rather than sending it to packing sheds for water washes.

Steve Smith, co-owner of Trulock Fruit Co. Inc. and president of the California Melon Research Board, estimates 90% of California cantaloupe is field-packed and sent immediately to coolers.

“Research has shown that in our growing conditions there are very few, if any, pathogens present,” Smith said. “When you introduce water to the packing process you introduce a growth medium. There is also a much greater chance for cross-contamination.”

The FDA issued a letter in early November to growers and others in the cantaloupe industry that reiterates the importance of the agency’s earlier guidance. Patricio responded, lauding FDA’s attention and outlining the California plan for research.

However, Patricio and Smith both said a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate.

“What may be necessary in one region might be the absolutely wrong thing for another,” Smith said. “We decided we could separate ourselves or work with other regions to find solutions. We are moving forward and working together.”

Patricio said he has “high hopes” that the FDA is moving in the direction of what he calls activity-based guidance and regulations as opposed to a commodity-based approach. He said recent discussions he has had with FDA officials suggest the agency now understands that the one-size approach doesn’t work with produce.

“The new FDA is much better than the old FDA,” Patricio said.



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