Outbreaks push cantaloupe growers to act

09/28/2012 05:47:00 PM
Coral Beach

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.

Garrett PatricioCourtesy Steve Adler/Ag AlertGarrett Patricio (left), chief operations officer and general counsel for Westside Produce, discusses field conditions while checking on a cantaloupe growing operation. Steve Patricio, co-founder of Westside, says the company is constantly in touch with growers to ensure that food safety protocols are followed.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.”


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