Although the new, mandatory California cantaloupe food safety rule became effective earlier this year, retailers and consumers won’t notice anything outwardly different about California cantaloupes this season.
“There won’t be stickers on each cantaloupe once they’re certified, and you won’t be seeing that in the stores this season,” said John Gilstrap, manager of the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.
What growers and handlers will notice are required inspections by California Department of Food and Agriculture personnel trained to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.
The beefed-up inspections are part of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, which last year became the first state marketing order to approve a mandatory food safety program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture signed off on the program with only a few changes before the start of this season, Gilstrap said.
The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board includes a food safety certification program that requires inspection to a set of best practices and science-based handling metrics.
Growers and handlers must pass a checklist of 156 points with 100% compliance. If they don’t, they have to go back, make corrections and be reinspected.
In addition, the rule requires handlers to have a traceback system.
Handlers who buy or accept cantaloupe from growers who do not follow approved best practices, haven’t been inspected or don’t have a traceback system will be in violation.
The marketing order also makes it an unfair trade practice not to comply.
The food safety plan is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s guidance for cantaloupe.
With input from Western Growers, University of California extension research specialist Trevor Suslow and food safety scientists at risk management firm Intertox, the board tailored the FDA recommendations to fit California conditions.
Should retail customers require food safety inspections by a private third party, Gilstrap said handlers would have to undergo additional audits.
“We hope someday that retailers will accept the California audit and not require them to have any others,” he said.
Assessment pays for program
The certification program is funded by handler assessments of 2 cents per 40-pound carton.
The cantaloupe board just launched its website, www.calcantaloupes.com, which contains the program’s guidelines and performance metrics and the names of all handlers who must comply.
Gilstrap said a list of certified handlers won’t be published on the site until after the season ends to avoid possibly putting handlers of later-season fruit at a competitive disadvantage.
“These people have been producing a safe product for a long time,” he said.
There has not been a single foodborne illness linked to California cantaloupe, he said.
“We decided this was the best way to handle it,” Gilstrap said.
“Everybody is starting out pending (certification). Until we have a season of audits, people won’t be certified. Audits will be going on this season, but there won’t be certified California cantaloupe in the stores.”
Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., has made food safety its top priority for years, said Jim Malanca, senior vice president.
Company president Steve Patricio serves as chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and its food safety committee. Patrichio also serves as chairman for the advisory committee for the Center for Produce Safety and sits on Western Growers’ food safety committee and the Produce Marketing Association’s foods safety committee.
Even before the mandatory rule, Patricio said many Westside handlers had been following voluntary food safety guidances for years.
“California, in general, has been at the forefront of this for years because food safety and quality go hand in hand,” he said. “We were recommending best practices and dealing with commodity-specific food safety guidances for close to two decades, so it’s certainly not new for anyone in Northern California.”
Malanca said Westside Produce already has hosted food safety inspectors from major retailers who want to conduct their own inspections, and it has passed a third-party audit this season.
Rod Rosales, marketing director for Devine Organics LLC, Fresno, Calif., said representatives from the grower-packer-shipper have been attending meetings to make sure they’re up to date on the new rule.
As a handler of organics, he said the company already had adopted many of the procedures within the new marketing order.
“We’re a little bit ahead of the curve because we do organic,” he said. “There are some test procedures that are being required that we’ve been following because we are organic.”
Top of mind
Brian Wright, sales manager for Del Mar Farms, Patterson, Calif., said food safety is top of mind of buyers with whom he deals.
“It’s one of the first things they ask,” he said.
They also inquire about GFSI (global food safety initiative) audits and product traceability, he said.
“We embrace it,” Wright said. “If you don’t have it, you really can’t be in the business. It’s just a necessity.”
Del Mar Farms passed its third-party Primus food safety audit a few weeks ago, and he said the next step will be state field audits beginning in July with the harvest.