Melon growers inaugurate food-safety plan


Issue Date: September 5, 2012
By Steve Adler
Garrett Patricio, left, of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, talks to crew foreman Salvador Benitez about the harvesting of cantaloupes. The crews began harvesting this field last week and will make several more passes during the coming weeks as melons reach maturity.
Photos/Steve Adler
California Grown and traceback stickers.
Photos/Steve Adler
Crews at this field near Firebaugh harvest cantaloupes that will be shipped to market within hours of being picked.
Photo/Steve Adler

California cantaloupe growers say they escaped a major marketing setback during the height of their harvest season, as consumers did not overreact to a salmonella outbreak traced to melons grown in Indiana.

Last year, a similar food-safety incident at a Colorado cantaloupe farm caused serious consequences for California growers. Consumers nationwide stopped buying cantaloupes from any source for a period of several weeks.

This year's Indiana incident, which has resulted in two deaths and 178 reported illnesses, follows by a few weeks the recall of cantaloupes from North Carolina because of possible contamination.

"The demand and receptiveness for California product is much better than we could have anticipated, given the recent outbreak," said S. Garrett Patricio, vice president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, one of the state's largest cantaloupe handlers.

Patricio said he believes work by the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board to build confidence in California-grown melons among buyers and grocery shoppers has "gone further than we anticipated."

"All things considered, I think we are in a very good position—especially in light of where we were last year at the same time following the listeria outbreak involving Colorado melons," he said.

California growers produce 60 percent of the nation's cantaloupes, with Arizona producing another 10 percent.

Despite the fact California melons have never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak, cantaloupe producers and packers here have adopted updated practices to enhance the safety of melons, based on knowledge learned during 20 years of research.

In May, 100 percent of California cantaloupe handlers voted to initiate the state's first mandatory food safety program to be implemented by a commodity board. Through the program, the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board will now include a food safety certification program that requires inspection by government auditors to verify that science-based production and handling metrics are being followed. The new program will make it an unfair trade practice for any California cantaloupe handler not to comply with the metrics.

The program also requires that all shippers can quickly trace back and recall melons if necessary.

Every box of California cantaloupes must have information designating the field or the lot where that box was packed, the crew that packed it and the date on which that box was packed, Patricio said.

"In addition, we also identify the shipper of that product and the county that the product was packed in," he said. "Westside Produce goes all the way down to the individual packer who actually packed that box, by a packer number on the top of the box. In addition, we use PLU stickers that have a bar code as well as traceability information to the shipper level. This means that at point of sale, it is possible to quickly identify Westside Produce as the shipper."

Farmers in other states are starting to realize the importance of a comprehensive traceback program, he said.

"With the recent incidents in North Carolina and Indiana, neither of those shippers had a very comprehensive traceback. Some of them didn't even identify the melons with a PLU sticker for the buying consumers," he said.

Research indicates that the hot, arid conditions where California cantaloupes are produced are not conducive to the development and spread of foodborne pathogens.

In addition, Patricio explained, virtually all California cantaloupes are field-packed, which means the melons are not commingled in a trailer. Instead, melons from a specific area of a field are packed in a box that identifies the exact location.

"Our melons are being touched by one person who picks them up and puts them on a contact surface. From that contact surface, they are being touched a second time by a packer who puts them in the box. So in reality, you only have two hands and one contact surface that can potentially contaminate that melon. And when you are talking about a melon, it is a single melon and not an entire lot," he said.

According to news reports, the Food and Drug Administration said last year that contaminated equipment and pools of tainted water on the floor of a washing and packing facility likely led to the spread of listeria at the Colorado cantaloupe farm.

Beginning with this harvest, California cantaloupes also carry a "California Grown" sticker to help people buy with confidence.

"We believe that putting that California Grown sticker on our product shows all of the goodwill that California has gone through in preparing that product, as well as all of the new safeguards that we have put behind that product," Patricio said.

In a statement following the Indiana outbreak, the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board joined with consumer advocates and government officials in calling on farmers, retailers, foodservice operators and distributors to examine their food safety systems and procedures, to ensure that people are purchasing safe and healthy products.

"It is very important that consumers understand the commitment to food safety the vast majority of cantaloupe producers have and that the current outbreak is the result of one individual operation that did not follow these well-established safety practices for packing cantaloupe," the statement continued.

The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board has also pledged a contribution of $200,000 to the Center for Produce Safety, an organization charged with conducting research to improve the safety of produce.

Cantaloupe harvest in California typically starts around the first of July and wraps up in mid-October.

"So we are more than halfway through. We look at the Labor Day weekend as the start of the last third of the season," Patricio said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.