On Nov. 21, The Packer conducted an exclusive question-and-answer interview with Will Steele, president and CEO of Frontera Produce, Edinburg, Texas, the marketer of the listeria-tainted cantaloupes shipped by Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo.
Q1. Please explain Frontera Produce’s business relationship with Jensen Farms.
Our role was that of a marketing agent, providing our expertise to find buyers and manage the sales paperwork and logistics for cantaloupe grown and packed by Jensen Farms. We did not purchase or take possession of the cantaloupe; rather we provided marketing services to Jensen Farms on a commission basis. As independent growers, the Jensens also sold directly to some customers, mostly locally.
As part of our marketing services, we utilized our inventory control system in which every pallet of Jensen Farms cantaloupe marketed by Frontera was remotely entered into our database when it was harvested and shipped. This proved to be important in tracking the product to customers in our database because we had records of where each pallet came from and where Jensen Farms shipped it.
Things happened quickly after that first call from health authorities. But before I get into the details, let me first strongly encourage all produce companies to test their recall plans to be sure that they can take immediate action if they are ever in a situation similar to what we faced. Our ability to respond quickly assisted in the investigation and may have prevented additional illnesses.
Here is how it all unfolded from our perspective:
On Thursday, Sept. 8, Colorado state health authorities specifically requested shipment records for cantaloupe grown in the Rocky Ford region as part of an investigation into an outbreak of listeria illnesses. We were also told at that point that the investigation included possible listeria sources other than cantaloupe. Because we had electronically integrated the farm’s inventory records with our purchase order records, we were able to quickly provide state officials with the customer list and initial shipping destinations for the Jensen Farms’ cantaloupe for which we were the marketer.
On Monday, Sept. 12, prior to pinpointing the exact source, Colorado state health officials issued a general consumer warning to not eat cantaloupe from the entire Rocky Ford region. We discussed this announcement with Jensen Farms that day and, as a precautionary measure, the Jensens stopped harvesting and selling cantaloupes because of the general warning. Frontera assisted Jensen Farms in issuing a voluntary market withdrawal by contacting customers in our database and asking that they remove the product from commerce and hold it until Colorado state officials could provide more information. We contacted customers by phone that same night (Sept. 12) and Tuesday morning (Sept. 13). These customers included wholesale operations that resell the product as well as retail distribution centers that ship to individual stores.