Cantaloupe growers frustrated; guidelines expected soon

08/23/2012 04:11:00 PM
Coral Beach

For additional information on the recall, please see "Outbreak linked to Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe."

cantaloupeThe 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.

Stee PatricioPatricioSteve 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 GilmerGilmerRay 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 SuslowSuslowTrevor 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.



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Produce Guy    
Texas  |  August, 28, 2012 at 09:06 AM

This is yet another symptom of the times... We want to prevent and regulate absolutely everything, but we want a smaller government. Retailers want traceability, higher liability insurance from suppliers, food safety etc.., but they want cheaper prices. Consumers want it all, they want it cheap, and they are not willing to compromise on anything. Something is going to have to give! How about having an honest public conversation about the realities, costs and (yes) COMPROMISES of achieving each one of those goals? If we contine kicking the can down the road like we have been we will continue to lose good companies and good growers that will not be willing to continue putting up with unprofitable businesses. Are we willing to live without Cantalupes, Papayas, Spinach, Tomatoes and on and on and on...?

Daniel Lambrecht    
Colorado  |  August, 28, 2012 at 11:13 AM

I second the comments of "Produce Guy". Could not have said it any better.

Ted Schultze    
Maple Grove, MN  |  September, 04, 2012 at 11:23 AM

I think the produce industry has to get used to the fact that there will be increased surveilance and monitoring of product as a whole because so much is now imported and the outbreaks keep happening. There will be additional cost but it will be a cost of staying in business. The buyers will always be asking for lower prices and it will be up to the seller to establish their value add. Tell me the business that does not if you disagreee. Every business I know of has exactly the same challenge so it's time to stop complaining and get it done.

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