( Classic Fruit )

When it comes to food safety, California cantaloupe growers are ahead of the game.

For the past five years, the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board has contracted with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which conducts mandatory food safety audits in fields, packinghouses and cooling facilities, said Garrett Patricio, chief operating officer for Westside Produce Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., and chairman of the cantaloupe board’s food safety committee.

The arrangement, financed by a small grower assessment, seems to be working.

According to the board’s recently released Food Safety Impact Report, which shows audit results for the past five years, the number of food safety infractions found by government auditors has continually declined.

“Today, it’s not uncommon for California cantaloupe farmers to have what is called a ‘clean’ audit,” Jonathan Field, the board’s compliance officer, said in a news release.

“In 2016, CDFA reported that 67% of the food safety audits they conducted did not show any need for corrective actions or re-audits that are required whenever violations of required practices are found,” he said in the release.

The report, which compiles information from CDFA audit findings, lists the number of announced and unannounced audits, infractions in all categories, checkpoints verified, “clean audits” and the overall compliance rate.

It also provides background on the program and how it is structured.

A list of approved handlers is provided on the board’s website, californiacantaloupes.com.

The food safety committee currently is reviewing the board’s food safety guidance document and comparing it to Global Food Safety Initiative and Food Safety Modernization Act standards to ensure that whatever audits the California industry is conducting meet or exceed the current requirements, Patricio said.

Food safety has been a top priority among cantaloupe growers for years and now is more important than ever, he said.

“Food safety is absolutely mandatory in anything you do,” he said. “It’s paramount to your success and the success of the industry.”

Customers shouldn’t have to ask whether a California cantaloupe grower is compliant with food safety standards, he said.

“It’s really become the norm.”

Grower-shippers who don’t make food safety a priority won’t be doing business with major buyers, he added.

California’s mandatory guidelines require all shippers to be in 100% compliance with the guidelines set by the board, he said.

The state has the only mandatory program in the produce industry that invites government auditors to inspect all operations — from growing to transportation to final destination, he said.

Auditors are trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the guidance of CDFA.

“It’s very different from the privately contracted auditors that we’ve had for many, many years,” Patricio said. “It ensures accountability, uniformity and consistency across the whole industry.”