As California’s Westside cantaloupe industry kicks off its second season under a stringent safety inspection program, nearly all of the state’s cantaloupe handlers have received the required certification, said John Gilstrap, manager of the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.

Gilstrap said that, to his knowledge, the cantaloupe marketing order that took effect in 2013 is “the only one in the produce industry that invites government auditors to inspect all aspects of the operation.”

To be certified, growers and handlers must comply with a 156-point checklist. If they don’t, they have to make corrections and be reinspected.

They’re also required to have a traceback system.

Names of certified handlers are listed on the board’s website, Companies that are decertified also will be listed, Gilstrap said, but companies that are pending certification will not be.

The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board is the certifying body. The auditors, from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, are trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is overseen by CDFA and USDA.

The cantaloupe advisory board has informed retailers about the program, Gilstrap said.

“Each handler can use that in his own way in his own market.”

Gilstrap estimates that 99% of the California cantaloupes on retail shelves has been certified under the program, which, he emphasized, is a proactive one.

“There’s never been a food safety issue with California cantaloupe,” he said. “It is a very safe product.”

The certification program shows how important the state’s cantaloupe handlers believe food safety is, he said.

“The industry is amazingly committed to the program,” he added. “They are people who believe so much in this program that they are taxing themselves to make it happen.”

The program is funded by handler assessments of 2 cents per 40-pound carton.

Food safety has long been a priority of Steve Patrichio, president of Westside Produce Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and its food safety committee.

Westside Produce has been following the practices since 2000, he said.

“It’s not very painful,” Patrichio said. It’s a matter of documenting food safety procedures and “verifying that you’re saying what you’re doing and doing what you say.”

Growers who may have been intimidated by the program are coming to realize that “it’s not as onerous as they might have thought,” he said.

Retailers are concerned about food safety and appreciate that all California cantaloupe shippers are following the same program, he added.

Growers in other states, including Colorado, Indiana and Georgia also are looking at the program, which evaluates “critical risk points” from the time ground is chosen for planting until the melons are loaded onto a truck, he said.

Besides the mandatory California program, many growers also must comply with separate third-party audits required by supermarket chains, Gilstrap said.

“They definitely want the consumer to know that they’re doing everything possible (to ensure food safety), and the product is being inspected,” he said.

“If (consumers) see a problem with a cantaloupe from somewhere else, there is no reason to think that same problem is going to exist with a California cantaloupe,” he said.

Patrichio said California’s climate also plays an important role in helping ensure that cantaloupes grown in the state are safe.

“The hot, dry desert conditions under which we grow makes the presence (of pathogens) much less and contamination less likely,” he said. “It’s possible, but not highly probable.”

As the program begins its second season, the certification process is “going very well,” Gilstrap said. “The auditors are doing a great job.”

The food safety plan is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s guidance for cantaloupe, which has been tweaked with input from Western Growers, University of California extension and other sources to fit California’s growing conditions.