(May 28) You’ll go one step further in helping ensure the health of your customers if you take a second look at fresh-cut melons. Carefully review and monitor your handling and preparation procedures for these fresh-cut classics to make sure you’re doing all you can to offer the safest product possible.

Cantaloupe and watermelons have been associated with several outbreaks of foodborne illnesses during the past 12 years. Forty-six illnesses, including two deaths, in 14 states were reported in the most recent outbreak in April and May of last year, according to a “Produce Safety at Retail” report issued by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, Md. Many of the illnesses reported a unique strain of the bacteria salmonella poona and were associated with cantaloupe consumption.

For most of these outbreaks, it was assumed that salmonella was present on the rind of the fruit, according to another FDA/CFSAN report about how to reduce and eliminate microbial hazards on fresh-cut produce.

This assumption indicates that the fruit was either contaminated in the field or during washing in a packinghouse and that the edible portion inside became contaminated during its final preparation. Factors such as improper storage temperatures and favorable conditions on the surfaces of cut melon pieces also likely contributed to the outbreaks, the report says.

“Melon is the only fresh-cut product that is classified as potentially hazardous,” says Jim Gorny, technical director for the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va. “Melons grow on the ground. They have an intimate contact with dirt.”

That relationship illustrates the importance your staff should take to ensure that potential bacteria, viruses and parasites on the outside of the fruit are not transported by the knife cutting through the rind and into the flesh.


For basic food safety training, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, Chicago, offers a new food safety training program called ServSafe Essentials for Supermarkets. The program is based on one developed for restaurants and foodservice.

“We have taken ServSafe Essentials for Food Service and added supermarket examples and photos. We are putting a supermarket spin to it,” says LeAnn Chuboff, NRA manager of science and regulatory relations. The new supermarket version contains information targeted toward produce, deli and bakery departments. It includes case studies, exercises, resources and updates to the FDA’s 2001 Food Code.

A kit also is available that includes an instructor guide and CD-ROM, presentation pack and an interactive training game called Food Safety Showdown. The program is suggested for training sessions that last one or two days.

Upon completion of the ServSafe course, participants have the information needed to handle food safely in the supermarket environment and prepare for the ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification Examination, Chuboff says.

Whether you purchase your fresh-cut produce from a processor or prepare it yourself in your backroom, the potential for contamination still exists through various means, such as cross-contamination, improper temperature controls and handling. Make sure your processor and your employees have and follow food safety procedures.

Gorny recommends that retailers purchase fresh-cut cantaloupe, melon and other produce from outside processors. “It’s probably not a good idea to do this (prepare fresh-cut melons) in house. Use a processor with an established HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) program, a food safety program and who understands food safety practices,” he says. “At a processing plant, there’s a labyrinth of systems in place.”

The FDA/CFSAN recommends the following safe handling practices for melons if you process them in-house. These guidelines were updated and issued in May 2001 to be consistent with the FDA Food Code, a reference that guides food retailers on how to prevent foodborne illnesses. To access the FDA/CFSAN Web site, visit www.cfsan.fda.gov.

1. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before cutting melons.
2.Before cutting, wash the outer surface of the melon thoroughly with cool tap water to remove surface dirt.
3. Wash all food-contact equipment and utensils that contact cut melons (cutting boards, knives, etc.) thoroughly with hot soapy water, rinse, sanitize and air-dry.
4. Maintain the temperature of cut melon at 41 degrees or below. Cut melons should be displayed in a refrigerated case, not just displayed on top of ice. Uncut melons do not need to be refrigerated.
5. Date cut melons that are held more than 24 hours to indicate that they must be consumed or discarded within seven days.
6. Mark the time when cut melons are displayed without refrigeration. Cut melons may be displayed for a maximum of four hours without temperature control, and, if not eaten, must be thrown away at the end of the four hours.

For retailers who produce fresh-cut melon products in house, Gorny advises three key areas to scrutinize among the FDA’s recommended guidelines: temperature controls, proper sanitation and basic employee food safety training.

“Keep the fruit at 41 degrees or below,” he says. “Potential human pathogens can proliferate if the temperature is not kept cold enough. The preparation areas must be clean. Chemical sanitizers, such as chlorine and quaternary ammonium compounds should be used. Employees should be trained in proper food-handling procedures, such as hand-washing and wearing gloves.”

Gorny also advises against using old or damaged fruit for cantaloupe and other melon fresh-cut products. “Research has shown there is a higher incidence with human pathogens associated with fruits and vegetables that have decay on them,” he says.

Some retailers use a mix of outside and in-store processing. “Much of our fresh-cut melon and cantaloupe is purchased already prepacked,” says Cas Tryba, food safety manager for Big Y Foods, a 48-store chain based in Springfield, Mass. Personnel at some Big Y stores prepare some or all of their fresh-cut produce in-house.

Tryba says melons and cantaloupes are prechilled in a walk-in cooler. Employees double wash the outer skin of the fruit with a scrubbing brush before cutting with cleaned and sanitized knives.

Policy manuals and standard operation procedures are available and employees are responsible for reading and following the procedures, Tryba says. Laminated charts with critical control points are posted as well. Employees make sure to date packs and cut limited amounts so no fruit is left out in the backroom for longer than 30 minutes.

At the single store Shop ‘N Save, Washington, Pa., one designated employee prepares fresh-cut cantaloupe, melon and vegetable trays at a station in the department. “The store was designed for this area to be out in the department,” says Bill Snyder, produce manager.

The station is behind a half-wall that is fronted by an ice case and contains two 8-foot stainless steel tables that hold a scale and wrapper. The area also has a three-bay sink for washing, rinsing and sanitizing. A Formica backsplash allows for easy cleanup. The station has its own equipment, utensils, cleaning supplies and composite material cutting boards. “Everything stays out here,” Snyder says.

Shop N Save employees who handle fresh-cut products attend food safety and handling classes through the Pittsburgh division of Supervalu Inc., Minneapolis.

Fresh-cut products are kept refrigerated and on ice for two days before they are discarded.

Visit the Web site for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Orlando, Fla. at www.melonmania.org for more melon safety tips. The site features food safety and handling information for retailers, says Wendy McManus, director of marketing.

“Because all of produce is affected by food safety, we feel there is a good awareness among retailers of the policies and procedures to follow as well as the risks that exist for not following proper procedures,” McManus says.