Message to consumers: Cantaloupes are safe.
That’s what the Cantaloupe Advisory Board, melon growers around the country and Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture want to reiterate.
“We understand there could be less consumption, but we’re doing everything in our power to regain consumer confidence in consuming cantaloupe,” said John Salazar, Colorado agriculture commissioner.
He and the state’s governor are meeting with major food retail chains to discuss marketing the safety of Colorado cantaloupes throughout the U.S.
“I can assure you that our growers are doing everything possible to maintain the safety of our cantaloupes,” he said.
In Colorado, Salazar said food safety workshops and protocols are being developed to ensure safe product handling.
Officials are conducting environmental assessments at all 18 producers in the Rocky Ford area.
Domestic cantaloupes should begin to arrive from Texas in early to mid-May, overlapping the end of the Central American season.
The Colorado deal starts at the end of July, while California — where the majority of the U.S. cantaloupe supply is grown — will begin in early July.
Even though the biggest cantaloupe fields of central California sit thousands of miles from the small Colorado growing area affected by listeria, the entire cantaloupe market took a hit.
Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from Granada, Colo.-based Jensen Farms were distributed to 28 states, infecting 146 people and causing at least 32 deaths.
As of early April, cantaloupe growers were optimistic about their crops and the market.
“Consumer confidence in the product has snapped back quicker than expected, and that makes me feel confident about the upcoming season,” said Daren Van Dyke, director of sales and marketing for Five Crowns Marketing, Brawley, Calif.
“In talking to different retailers we work with, we’re seeing movement back to normal and numbers back to normal. Overall, I would call it cautiously optimistic.”
“We’re being told that restaurants and foodservice have put cantaloupes back into the mix, and it’s been well received,” said Steve Patricio, chairman of the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and president of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif.
As the domestic melon season approaches, California is poised for modification.
Changes to the California Cantaloupe Program, the state’s marketing order for cantaloupes, would make a more detailed food safety program part of that order. The proposed changes will be mandatory.
The state is working with government agencies, scientists and food safety experts to create a specific guidance plan for melons grown in California.
They will require food safety audits to verify each cantaloupe handler is in compliance and impose disciplinary actions on those who do not comply. This builds on California’s mandatory program of government inspection and quality certification.
“We would like to have this mandatory program in place for the 2012 season,” Patricio said.
He said most California cantaloupe producers support the program.
“Everybody is affirming what we’re trying to do,” Patricio said.
Rodney Van Bebber, sales manager for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif., agreed.
“We’re going to be part of (the new mandatory initiative) because it’s good for the industry and the cantaloupe industry, in particular,” he said.
“It’s essential to get consumer confidence back up. That is everything right now.”