(March 3, 3:15 p.m.) CHARLESTON, S.C. — The National Watermelon Association unveiled its new, watermelon-specific safety and traceability guidelines at its annual convention Feb. 18-22.

The association plans to publish the report on its Web site in coming weeks, followed by a Spanish-language version within a few months, said Bob Morrissey, executive director of the Plant City, Fla.-based association.

“We developed the first-ever watermelon-specific food safety and traceability report the day before (the Produce Marketing Association) last year and have since made additions and changes and just released our second edition on CD,” Morrissey said. “But we’d like to promote this in Central America as well, so we’re looking into the best way we can get this translated into a Spanish version to put up on our Web site.”

Central America fills U.S. supply gaps, Morrissey said, so it’s important to make sure those melons are up to the same standards as the ones produced in the U.S.

Morrissey said the NWA worked closely with tomato industry officials, who dealt with the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak last summer, as well as officials in many other safety-related sectors.

While safety experts agree watermelons, because of their thick rinds, pose less chance of being involved in a foodborne illness outbreak, Morrissey said Feb. 19 it’s essential those in the industry prepare as if watermelons will be next.

Morrissey, who headed to Washington, D.C., to work with legislators immediately after the watermelon convention, stressed to his members group there’s no time to waste.

“The number of produce outbreaks, mainly in fresh fruit and vegetables, has escalated to incredible numbers, especially of recent years,” Morrissey said. “It was our (initial) opinion … that the earliest the federal government would enact any kind of federal food safety legislation would be probably the end of this year.”

Legislators are likely to tackle the issue much sooner, after a nationwide recall of hundreds of products containing peanut butter.

National watermelon officials are working closely in the legislative process, Morrissey said. During his introduction of the association’s three-hour food safety presentation, he told watermelon growers doing their due diligence is not enough.

He said they must not only handle and process watermelons carefully and according to strict guidelines, but also must be certain to document all steps of the process.

He repeatedly warned the audience that any procedures to ensure food safety will be worth nothing if safety questions are raised by consumers or government officials after the fact and watermelon companies cannot provide adequate documentation.

Food safety is nothing new to the watermelon industry, Morrissey said, and 2009 marks the third straight year safety has been a focal point at the annual convention.

Speakers also discussed traceability and sanitation issues and a crisis management program initiated by the watermelon promotion board.

That program focuses on training growers on how to deal with food safety questions from mainstream media and how to ensure the industry takes a lead role in disseminating official information to the media.