Cantaloupe growers, packers and shippers in California say they’re hopeful the state’s new commodity-specific food safety program will bolster consumer confidence in their crop.

The market for the spring crop coming out of the desert was good, but Bill Colace, owner of Brawley, Calif.-based Five Crowns Marketing, attributed much of that to reduced acreage.

“I still don’t think the cantaloupe deal has recovered 100%,” he said.

Jim Malanca, vice president of sales for Westside Produce Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., said several factors, including lingering effects from last fall’s listeria-tainted Colorado cantaloupe, probably contributed to this summer’s lethargic market.

“It’s very difficult to put your finger on ― everything that’s going on economy-wise, weather-wise and food safety-wise,” he said. “We’ve done as much as we can to make sure our food is safe for consumers, and we document everything.”

Compared to spring and summer acreage, the fall melon deal historically has been much smaller.

In 2011, about 4,700 acres of cantaloupes were harvested in California from October through December compared with 10,800 acres from April through June and 21,400 acres from July through September, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New safety program

In response to last fall’s listeria outbreak, California cantaloupe growers and handlers enlisted the help of university and other food safety experts to develop a mandatory food safety program.

Members of the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board unanimously approved the program in May.

Colace, who is also vice chairman of the board, said he believes the program already has helped bolster confidence among retailers and buyers. But consumers may be a different story.

“I think the biggest thing is to educate the public that we have a piece of fruit that is very safe,” he said.

Malanca agreed.

“It’s not our buyers that I worry about,” he said. “It’s the consumer. The buyers expect us to have done that.”

Malanca said food safety representatives from several retailers visited his operation this summer.

The amended California Cantaloupe Advisory Board now covers all cantaloupe produced and marketed in the state and includes a food-safety certification program.

Not following the plan, which relies on a set of production and handling metrics, will amount to unfair trade practices.

The board based the program on the Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 guidance for melons, though it’s been modified to take into account California growing practices, board manager John Gilstrap said.

California Department of Food and Agriculture auditors, who are certified by the USDA, will inspect operations.

An auditor’s checklist is still in the works.

“It’s kind of a cumbersome process to get all of the guidelines developed,” Gilstrap said.

As part of the overall food safety program, growers who pass the audit receive a certification stamp, which is in development, he said.

The board aims to complete the guidelines by the end of 2012, Gilstrap said.

In the meantime, inspectors are conducting informational inspections.

“What they’ve essentially started doing is pointing out any issues that may come up for the growers,” Gilstrap said.