Now that national and regional guidelines for cantaloupe growing and handling are available, produce industry leaders and food safety advocates say there is no excuse for cantaloupe growers to be unaware of food safety procedures.
The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association and an ad hoc group with international participants have issued the guidelines in an attempt to avoid a third consecutive year of deadly foodborne illnesses, said Ray Gilmer, vice president for issue management and communication for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C.
In 2011, cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo., were linked to a listeria outbreak that killed 33. In 2012 a salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Chamberlain Farm Produce, Owensville, Ind., killed three people.
Authors of the recently released guidelines said they are encouraging smaller growers to review the documents and implement changes to avoid similar outbreaks.
The national guidelines, developed and published by the ad hoc industry group — led by representatives from Western Growers, the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association — are now available for free download, the authors said March 7. The guidelines are at tinyurl.com/Cantaloupe-safety.
Although the guidelines don’t carry the weight of a government document, they were developed with input from U.S. regulatory agencies as well as food safety officials in Canada and Mexico. The guidelines cover a variety of growing regions and conditions, as well as discussing safety procedures for field packing and packing shed operations.
“There have been simultaneous efforts in the industry to get food safety guidelines into the hands of growers because of the outbreaks associated with cantaloupes in 2011 and 2012,” Gilmer said. “We don’t have a preference which guidelines growers use, we just want them to be aware of what they can do.”
Hank Giclas spearheaded the development of the California good agricultural practices for cantaloupes and the national guidance document created by the ad hoc group.
“My personal opinion is that any producer or handler who follows any one of the documents will likely have a good food safety program, said Giclas, who is vice president for science, technology and strategic planning for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.
“In the last decade I’ve talked to large and small scale operators, and some have concerns about the cost,” Giclas said. “But I believe food safety plans are scalable to the size of an operation and I really don’t think the costs are prohibitive. The truth is, they can’t afford not to have food safety procedures in place.”
Giclas said the focus of the National Cantaloupe Guidance website (www.cantaloupe-guidance.org) has shifted from development to a resource center where the guidance document and other resources will be maintained.
The guidance is intended to be a “living document,” Giclas said. Growers, handlers and other users are encouraged to provide comment and feedback during the 2013 growing season via the website. At the end of the season, the development group will evaluate comments, review the guidance and make changes to improve the practicality for industry and protections for consumers, Giclas said.