The recall of Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe linked to a salmonella outbreak hit other Indiana growers hard when customers took a guilt-by-association approach to buying because the specific grower wasn’t named for six days.
Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at Purdue University and treasurer of the Southwest Indiana Melon and Vegetable Association, said some growers had abandoned melons in their fields.
“One grower I spoke with has already plowed them under,” Egel said Aug. 21. “Others are saying they won’t plant any next year. One man had $15,000 worth in his cooler and he said he was just going to throw them out because no one wants to buy from the area.”
Cantaloupe growers out West are also upset, saying inconsistent expectations from receivers has created a double standard, according to Hank Giclas, vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.
Steve Patricio, cantaloupe grower and president of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., said buyers have dropped the ball by putting too much faith in suppliers and growers who do not use good food safety practices.
As president of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Patricio helped develop a marketing order that includes food safety requirements.
“The buy side has traded increased delivery costs for reduced food safety procurement costs,” Patricio said.
Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C., said all entities in the supply chain share responsibilities. He said retailers and distributors should require suppliers to use good food safety practices, and they need to have traceability programs themselves.
“Some of these issues will go away when we achieve whole-chain traceability,” Vache said.
Food safety advocates and some produce professionals suggested the Food and Drug Administration tardiness in issuing rules required by the Food Safety Modernization Act has contributed to recent recalls and outbreaks.
The produce rule was due in January, but FDA was late submitting it and it has been stalled at the White House Office of Management and Budget for months.
Ray Gilmer, United Fresh vice president of communications, said the association has volunteered to provide information and resources to help the government with the rules.
“We are talking about food safety, and every day of delay has an impact on our ability to increase the standards,” Gilmer said.
Western Growers’ Giclas said he wasn’t convinced more regulations or guidelines would help.
“There is no shortage of guidance out there and still we see instances of people who aren’t following that,” Giclas said.
National guidelines expected this year
Despite his skepticism, Giclas and Western Growers have been working with the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh and independent researchers to develop national commodity-specific guidelines for cantaloupes.
Trevor Suslow, research extension specialist at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California-Davis, has been helping with the national guidelines, and said he expects they will be published in a couple of months.
However, Suslow said he thought more could have been done to educate growers across the country about safe harvesting, handling and distribution in the wake of last year’s deadly listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.
“I think there was a missed opportunity,” Suslow said Aug. 23. “I wish we could have done a better job of getting existing information to county extension agents and others who were already engaged with the smaller growers.”
Suslow said much of the information in the new national commodity guidelines is already on the books.
“They are largely what we already know,” Suslow said. “The big issues (in the new guidelines) are about raising the bar of expectations for all producers.”
The Packer’s national editor Tom Karst contributed to this story.