“This strain is one of the most common,” Quinlisk said Aug. 21. “You would expect to find a fair number of cases of this at any point.”
Quinlisk said she is not ruling out the Indiana cantaloupe as the cause, but merely expressing caution at this point in the investigation. She said the FDA has not provided her with the name of the Indiana cantaloupe grower who withdrew his melons.
Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at Purdue University and treasurer of the Southwest Indiana Melon and Vegetable Association, said some cantaloupe growers have abandoned melons in their fields.
“One grower I spoke with has already plowed them under,” Egel said. “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.”
Egel said in his 17 years in the region the number of small cantaloupe growers has declined.
“It used to be if you grew watermelon you also grew a few acres of cantaloupe. That has changed,” Egel said. “Retailers started asking for the melons to be washed and then they started wanting them to be pre-cooled. ... That kind of equipment costs money that smaller growers just don’t have.”
Small or large, growers should be held to the same food safety standards, said Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, and Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for united Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C.
Patricio said he is angry and frustrated by the current cantaloupe news. He said the California cantaloupe growers have been working on food safety techniques for their commodity for 20 years and have developed guidelines and materials for growers.
But Patricio and Vache said other entities along the supply chain have responsibilities, too.
“I’d like to believe that there would be unanimity with retailers on food safety requirements," Patricio said.
Vache said retailers and distributors not only need to require their suppliers to use good food safety practices, but they need to have traceability programs in place for instances such as the current salmonella outbreak.
“Some of these issues will go away when we achieve whole-chain traceability,” Vache said. “Once it leaves the grower’s hands it’s up to the rest of the chain.”
Vache also said retailers need to be diligent about buying from suppliers and distributors who have proven food safety programs. When regular suppliers run low, giving into the temptation to use a source with lower standards can lead to problems.
“It is incumbent upon them to have more discipline in their buying practices,” Vache said.