Hit with back-to-back years of deadly outbreaks, growers and shippers in the U.S. cantaloupe deal have mixed feelings as the 2012 season winds down in many parts of the country.
Some, like Jimmy Burch Sr. in Faison, N.C., say they won’t plant cantaloupes again because the risk is too high. He recalled Burch Farms cantaloupe this year after listeria was found on a melon sampled at retail and at his packing facility.
No illnesses have been reported related to his cantaloupe, but Burch said he will stick to sweet potatoes and other commodities in future seasons.
Tim Chamberlain, owner of Chamberlain Farm, Owensville, Ind., hasn’t said whether he will continue to grow cantaloupe. He recalled all cantaloupe and watermelons grown on his farm this year after health officials matched salmonella strains in sick people to identical strains on his fruit and at his facilities.
As of mid-September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that salmonella infections linked to Chamberlain cantaloupes sickened 270 people in 26 states and killed three in Kentucky.
Western growers double down on safety
Cantaloupe growers in two prime areas remain committed to the commodity and to increasing food safety measures.
In the Rocky Ford region of Colorado, just southeast of Pueblo, cantaloupe growers banded together after the 2011 cantaloupe-related listeria outbreak that killed 33. Some weren’t sure there could be a 2012 season for Rocky Ford cantaloupe because of guilt by association.
The 2011 outbreak was traced to Jensen Farms, almost 100 miles away in Holly, Colo. Jensen marketed cantaloupe as Rocky Ford brand, killing buyers’ interest in cantaloupe from the actual Rocky Ford region. Rocky Ford growers took a stand together.
This summer the Rocky Ford Growers Association shipped more than 160,000 cartons of trademarked Rocky Ford Cantaloupe through a modern packing facility that association members pay to use.
Michael Hirakata, association president and cantaloupe grower, put up the capital for the packing facility, which is at Hirakata Farms. He said the association’s first season proved small growers in other regions could work together to achieve higher food safety standards while sharing costs.
“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.”
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.