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California cantaloupe industry reassures consumers over listeria concerns

California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of food-borne illness. The listeria outbreak, the first ever for melons, was 'a tragic localized event.' The cantaloupe listeria outbreak has likely cost the industry more than $50 million nationwide.

The cantaloupe industry in California, which leads the nation, is seeking to reassure the government and consumers in the wake of a deadly listeria outbreak traced to Colorado.

“It never should have happened,” said Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, referring to the outbreak this summer that resulted in 29 deaths and 139 people infected in multiple states.

In a telephone interview, Patricio expressed “condolences to families of the injured and dead,” termed the multimillion dollar impact on the industry “devastating” and elaborated on a letter the board sent to the Food and Drug Administration after it issued an open letter of guidance on food safety.

The letter signed by Patricio outlines a three-pronged approach to ensuring food safety precautions are in place in the wake of the outbreak that Patricio said has likely cost the industry more than $50 million nationwide.

Steps include:

  • A pledge from the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and the California Melon Research Board that $200,000 in research funding will be provided to the Center for Produce Safety over the next four years to find new and better ways to improve the safety of melons. The two industry groups are encouraging participation of other cantaloupe producing regions in the project.
  • An immediate review of the industry’s internal practices “so we can further assure consumers that our cantaloupes are safe.”
  • The California and Arizona cantaloupe industries working with the Center for Produce Safety along with food safety experts at the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers and United Fresh Produce Association to conduct “a complete review of existing and available research on food safety practices” worldwide. “This effort will become the basis of updated regional guidance for melon food safety which will be submitted to FDA as soon as possible,” the letter said.

The FDA letter was aimed at re-enforcing the importance of following food safety guidance based on what Patricio said was “more than 25 years of well-established research for washing and sanitizing packing equipment for cantaloupe production.”

It was sent to firms that grow, harvest, sort, pack, process or ship fresh cantaloupe.

Patricio’s letter points out California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of food borne illness.

Investigators traced the outbreak to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., and the Center for Disease Control recommended that consumer not eat whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe from Jensen. The FDA also issued a statement that “Cantaloupes that are known NOT to have come from Jensen Farms are safe to eat.”

Chilling effect

But the outbreak had a nationwide chilling effect on consumers. Patricio, president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, said public contamination fears “shut down our season three weeks early, meaning the loss of three weeks during a 15-week shipping season.”

That meant workers, for example, lost 20 percent of their normal income in places like the San Joaquin Valley. And Patricio said the loss was still greater in parts of Arizona and Imperial where “their season was ramping up as ours was ramping down. They were damaged two or three times what we suffered.”

Patricio said it was impossible to quantify exactly what losses would total.

He said the listeria outbreak, the first ever for melons, was “a tragic localized event,” though its effects were felt in multiple states in part because Jensen allied itself with Texas-based distributor Frontera Produce, which gave it a greater reach than it would otherwise might have had.

Patricio said the FDA and officials with the Colorado Department of Health Services “probably saved numerous lives and prevented illnesses” by responding quickly to a report of a person sickened by a cantaloupe with a Rocky Ford label.

Some of the cantaloupe was tested and listeria was detected, including strains that had sickened others.

“The smoking gun was found,” Patricio said.

The contamination was traced to a washing system that had just been installed at Jensen. Lack of forced air cooling to remove field heat also may have played a role.

“This was basic Packing Shed 101,” Patricio said. “It wasn’t new, it wasn’t whiz bang.”

California each year ships about 30 million 40-pound cartons. Cantaloupes are a $134 million California crop grown on about 40,000 acres. The state produces 58 percent of the nation’s crop. Arizona has 28 percent, Florida 7 percent, Georgia 4 percent and Colorado about 2 percent.

Patricio said it’s unknown how quickly the melon industry can allay concerns.

“It took five years after the spinach crisis for it to return to earlier consumption levels,” he said. “Alar on apples took three years; Temek on watermelons [in the 1980s] took less than a year. There will be a [continuing] impact. It depends on how the industry is able to respond to consumer concerns.”

Patricio said that in 1999 the California industry adopted guidance that was “at a more robust level” than the federal government’s recommendations on food safety.

He said that on Jan. 11 there will be a symposium in San Diego of “industry stakeholders” to help set an agenda of science-based research related to food safety.

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