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Tainted Mexican cantaloupe finally draws FDA advisory

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has finally issued a blanket health advisory against imported Mexican cantaloupes in an effort stem chronic outbreaks of salmonella attributed to unsanitary growing and packing conditions in that country.

Western Growers Association (WGA) called the FDA alert a vindication of its efforts over the past two years to remedy an ongoing problem with contaminated melons that have been linked to four outbreaks in the past three years in the U.S. resulting in two deaths, 18 hospitalizations and several illnesses. FDA sampling of imported melons from most growing regions in Mexico tested positive for salmonella. Samples were taken during both the fall/winter and spring/summer season.

The latest alert expands prior import alerts that targeted specific shippers and growers whose products were linked to outbreaks or tested positive for salmonella.

Some may construe this as a “trade barrier” issues. It is not. It is a health issue championed by the Western fresh produce industry. Certainly, when produce from another country causes illnesses in the U.S., it affects all produce on the shelf. That makes it an economic issue, but that is secondary to food safety.

Food safety was on the radar screen long before 9-11. WGA and its members annually spend millions ensuring the safety of the fresh produce they deliver to consumers worldwide.

In a recent trip to Yuma, Ariz., it was impressive listening to a production manager from one of the major vegetable shippers there talk about what he had to do internally to meet his company's safety criteria. It was no government program compliance thing. It was all internal, with more teeth than any government bureaucrat could imagine.

The company had a food safety manager who told the production department what it could plant. Extensive field histories were included in that decision making along with field location. It there were a crop grown nearby — even by another farmer — that could possibly compromise food safety, a field would be red-lined. Any field where compost or manure had been used was immediately excluded. Even fields near animal feeding or composting operations were excluded.

That is only the first step. A tour through any of the industry's packing plants, especially those processing ready-to-eat vegetables, makes you feel like you are in a hospital operating room. Expensive stainless steel is everywhere backed up by unequalled sanitation practices.

Food safety is no perfunctory part of growing and processing fresh produce. It is the heart of the American fresh fruit and vegetable industry. It should also be the cornerstone for any country that wants to sell into the U.S. market. American consumers expect safe food and they must get it, regardless of where it comes from.

It's unfortunate that FDA has let this salmonella issue with Mexican cantaloupes drag on for two years. It is to the agency's credit that it stepped in, finally, at the continued insistence of WGA and others.

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