(Nov. 21, 2:34 p.m.) The National Watermelon Association hopes its recently released commodity-specific food safety program will help the industry implement common practices and prove its commitment to food safety.

Watermelons have been lumped in with cantaloupe and other melons as a high-risk fresh produce item.

“We’re guilty by association,” said Bob Morrissey, executive director of the Plant City, Fla.-based association. “There has not been a single outbreak related to our industry according to the (Food and Drug Administration).”

The only watermelon-specific illness reports, three of them since 1990, were caused by consumer at-home handling, he said.

In March, salmonella linked to Honduran cantaloupe from a single shipper caused 51 reported illnesses in 16 states in the U.S. In October 2002, the FDA halted shipments of Mexican cantaloupe after salmonella outbreaks in 2000, 2001 and 2002 were linked to the melons.

Morrissey said he has petitioned the FDA twice this year to take watermelon off the high-risk list, but has been denied.

The first edition of the food safety plan, released in late October, is being reviewed by more than 80 industry members and food safety experts, including growers-shippers, retailers, restaurants, universities, a traceability technology company, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA. A second version is expected to be released at the watermelon association’s national convention Feb. 18-22 in Charleston, S.C.

At this point, there is no formal marketing order in place and the program is voluntary, said Chris Bloebaum, secretary treasurer for Delta Fresh Sales Inc. Bloebaum is one of the reviewers of the program.

Bloebaum said the watermelon-specific program is very similar to the food safety program Delta Fresh has implemented over the past two years. One big difference, he said, is the traceability recommendation in the NWA program, which is Redwood City, Calif.-based YottaMark’s HarvestMark.

“It’ll create a little more work because it requires work on the farm level to get what you’ve been packing and where to them daily,” Bloebaum said. “But it can trace back to the actual watermelon itself. From a producer’s standpoint, you don’t know if a retailer has a bin on the floor and may not exchange that out, just fill it from the backroom.”

Traceback just to the bin, Bloebaum said, may not be enough anymore.

Bloebaum said when Delta Fresh starts production again in April, the company plans to use HarvestMark; Cordele, Ga.-based Leger & Son Inc. already uses the system.

Also on the food safety front, the National Watermelon Association has been pleading with Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which announced in February its intent to require Global Food Safety Initiative standards to high-risk fruit and vegetable crops by January 2009.

“At first, in reading through those standards, it seemed like they weren’t doable,” Bloebaum said. “At first glance, we thought it was impossible.”

Bloebaum said Delta Fresh, along with Browning & Sons Inc., Madison, Fla., and Global Produce Sales Inc., Lakeland, Fla., encouraged Morrissey to respond to Wal-Mart’s request.

Morrissey said he scheduled a meeting with Wal-Mart officials in December to discuss taking watermelons off their list of high-risk items.