Rockmelons face food safety crisis in Australia. ( The Packer )

More than six years after cantaloupes from Colorado’s Rocky Ford region were implicated in a deadly listeria outbreak in the U.S., Australia is dealing with its own nightmare related to listeria and melons.

As The Packer’s library retells the story, Granada, Colo.-based Jensen Farms issued a voluntary recall of its cantaloupes Sept. 14 of 2011. The Centers for Disease Control eventually reported the number of outbreak-associated illnesses totaled 147 persons in 28 states. In total, the CDC said 33 deaths from outbreak-associated cases of listeriosis were tallied; one woman pregnant at the time of illness also had a miscarriage.

In the aftermath of the Jensen Farms listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe in 2011, sales of melons nosedived.

Cantaloupes were the hardest hit of all melon categories measured in October 2011, but all shared in the pain, retail data revealed.

For the four weeks ending Oct. 29 that year, the Perishables Group reported retail sales and retail volume of cantaloupe were off 53%. The entire melon category showed a volume decline of 31% and a sales decline of 33% for the four-week period, The Packer reported at the time.


Rocky times

You may have heard some coverage of the current listeria foodborne illness outbreak linked to Australian rockmelons, which are in essence cantaloupes.

In coverage dated March 13, ran the headline read “Rockmelon listeria: Rombola Family Farms named as source of outbreak.”

Four have been killed and 17 sickened from the outbreak since federal authorities began investigating in January, according to the story.

Some of the talking points in the story touched on  the search for the precise cause of the outbreak, collateral damage to other melon growers, the anger of those melon growers looking for federal food safety authorities to proclaim the safety of the melon supply and, of course, the potential for additional regulation because of the outbreak.

From the story

Food Produce Centre head of food safety Richard Bennett said it took months for demand for rockmelons to increase after an outbreak of salmonella two years ago.

“It had a very rapid effect on the marketplace, including demolishing demand in markets where that product wasn’t even supplied,” he said.

Consumers at a farmers market in Bunbury, Western Australia this week were clearly worried about the threat of listeria, despite that state being unaffected by the outbreak.

One said the outbreak had put them off buying rockmelons at the moment, while another said they had not bought rockmelons since the outbreak, despite loving the fruit.

Demand for rockmelons has plummeted by 90% across the country.

A Western Australian farmer has described the listeria outbreak in rockmelons as a national disaster that will cost the industry tens of millions of dollars and take years to recover from.


TK: Yes, all of this sounds painfully familiar. And the notion that Australian growers of rockmelons are in for even tougher times ahead is likely true. Consider that Colorado’s cantaloupe shipments in 2010, one year before the Jensen Farms outbreak, totaled 625,000 (40-pound) cartons. In 2016, the USDA reported Colorado cantaloupe shipments had shrunk to just 230,000 cartons.

Even so, food safety lessons were learned and the U.S. melon industry has battled back.

For Australian melon marketers, the illusory “silver lining” will come if the cause of the outbreak is discovered and industry-wide measures can be put in place to prevent a repeat episode. 


Submitted by Ralphie on Tue, 03/13/2018 - 16:43

Cantaloupes present a challenge due to the dimples, but a simple good safety practices can and do make them very safe. I worked on the finding the cause of the Colorado outbreak and understood it too well, the lack of a food safety was serious.