“Basic communication is the key,” Hirakata said. “Begin early and keep communicating. We are starting meetings immediately after this season wraps up so we can plan for next season.”
Courtesy RFGAA worker checks cantaloupe as they move through a sorting machine at Hirakata Farms, Rocky Ford Colo. After cantaloupe from Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo., were linked to listeria in 2011 that killed 33 people, cantaloupe growers in the Rocky Ford region formed the Rocky Ford Growers Association to improve food safety measures. California codes
California cantaloupe growers have worked under stringent food safety measures for years, partly in response to a 1991 outbreak that brought the industry to a standstill. The outbreak involved cantaloupe from Mexico that were improperly iced in Texas, but it hit California growers hard.
“I sent 800 guys home and told them I didn’t know when I would be able to bring them back to work,” said Steve Patricio, founder of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and Center for Produce Safety.
“I said until we understand microbials and food safety better, we can’t market anything.”
The industry responded and funded research that turned into the standard for safely growing and packing cantaloupe, Patricio said.
California’s cantaloupe growers responded again this year when they voted unanimously to initiate the state’s first mandatory food safety program to be implemented by a commodity board. It requires government audits and shippers to have traceback capabilities and recall measures in place.
“Every box of California cantaloupes must have information designating the field or lot where that box was packed, the crew that packed it and the date it was packed,” said Garrett Patricio, vice president of operations and general counsel for Westside Produce.
Westside traceability labels include the shipper and the country the fruit was packed in, along with the individual person who packed the box. Westside also uses Price Look-Up stickers that have bar codes and traceability information to the shipper level so at the point of sale it is clear that Westside shipped the fruit.