It’s been just four months since a listeria outbreak linked to Colorado cantaloupes led to more than 140 reported illnesses and 30 deaths. But sources are optimistic that cantaloupes — and the entire melon category — will bounce back.
“Consumers are concerned when an event is happening,” said Ed Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting, Stockton, Calif.
“It’s on the news. It’s in the paper. It’s very prominent. For those few weeks when it’s happening, it has an effect on sales. As time goes on, people think, ‘I like a good cantaloupe,’ or watermelon, or whatever it might be.”
Odron pointed out that spinach, bagged salads and other products have rebounded from deadly foodborne illness outbreaks that devastated sales in the short term.
In an October report prepared for the National Watermelon Promotion Board by Rose Research LLC, nearly 60% of consumers surveyed said they were purchasing fewer cantaloupes after learning of the outbreak.
One-fourth of shoppers said the outbreak — which received widespread media attention — also had affected their purchasing of honeydews, and 18% said they were buying less watermelon.
But that was then.
“It’s last year’s news now,” Odron said.
“Going forward, I believe if there is a good crop, retailers will get behind it and push it. Consumers will come back.”
Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., said Jan. 18 that consumer confidence is returning to normal levels in regard to purchasing melons, and cantaloupe in particular.
Joe Santoro, area supervisor and buyer for Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace, St. Clair Shores, Mich., said Jan. 18 that watermelon and honeydew sales have picked up slightly, but cantaloupe sales remained down about 30% compared to the same time last year.
Of course, limited supplies in mid-January and high prices could be contributing factors, Odron said.
Imports from Guatemala and Honduras were $14.95-15.95 for half cartons of 9s and $13.95-14.95 for 15s in south Florida, the USDA said Jan. 18.
Fresh Quest Inc., Plantation, Fla., hopes for a good winter deal after the Colorado debacle hampered movement of their fall crop grown in Arizona.
“This year it was a terrible fall deal,” said vice president of sales Lou Kertesz.
“There was no interest. The media made it seem like it was all melons, though it was just one Colorado grower.”
Kertesz said Fresh Quest is HACCP- and GlobalGAP-certified. He said the listeria outbreak demonstrates that all growers — large or small, foreign or domestic — should be held to a high and equal standard.
“Retailers support local growers, but they need to be accountable for what they grow, too,” he said.
“Everyone should have the same rules applied to them. As you can see, one small local grower affected the entire industry.”
Kertesz said Fresh Quest does its own lab tests on product but also uses third-party lab tests.
“We do everything possible to make sure our product is safe upon arrival to the customer, but the burden shouldn’t fall solely on suppliers,” he said.
“The burden is on everyone involved. The goal is to keep product flowing.”
Kertesz said retailers who communicated to consumers that their supplies were safe and not related to the Colorado recall lost fewer sales than those who did not.
“It’s up to the retailer to make sure consumers know the product is safe,” he said.
Last fall’s outbreak was not the first time cantaloupe was pegged as the source of a large-scale recall.
From 2000-02, there were four multi-state salmonella outbreaks traced back to Mexican cantaloupes.
“I think that with the unfortunate incident of the cantaloupes from Colorado, the public, marketers and authorities have realized that the problem with this commodity is not specific to (a) certain country or countries,” said Miky Suarez, manager of MAS Melons & Grapes LLC, Nogales, Ariz.
“It can happen anywhere. That is the nature of this product due to the netting of the fruit. I think that growers will take a longer look when deciding what acreage they will put on cantaloupes, and in some cases whether or not to grow them at all.”
Suarez said some of MAS’s partners grow cantaloupes but not for export to the United States.
He said the company’s melon imports to the U.S. and Canada are limited to honeydews.
“We would not like to risk it by having a problem with cantaloupes,” he said.
“I think that a very important thing to realize is that the food safety with this product does not end at the production farm and pack house. Food safety has to be continued all the way to the consumer.”