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Cantaloupe Food Safety Solutions Leave Consumers Praying

Market food safety at retail

Opinion

Tim Chamberlain seems like a nice enough guy. According to the Indianapolis Star he started growing cantaloupe and watermelon on an acre of land and now, 30 years later, he and his wife, Mia, have built Chamberlain Farms into a midsized melon-growing operation, with 500 acres and about 20 employees.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this week that the Chamberlains’ southwestern Indiana farm “may be one source of contamination” in the salmonella outbreak that has killed two people in Kentucky and sickened 178 people in 21 states.

The story says it’s difficult for the 48-year-old father of four to imagine that his farm could have been a source of such tragedy. He doesn’t believe his farm was the source of contamination, though he emphasized that he is not disputing anything public health authorities have said.

Dan Egel, a Purdue Extension specialist in Vincennes, Ind., said Chamberlain has worked closely with the Extension Service over the years on disease and pest control though not specifically on food safety.

And that could be the biggest clue until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration releases its inevitable report documenting faith-based food safety.

(Updated: Dan Egel writes, “The reason that Tim Chamberlain and I never spoke about food safety is because food safety is not my specialty. I know for certain that Tim interacted with other Purdue University specialists that are experts on food safety.”)

The effect on others is staggering: Vernon Stuckwish of Stuckwish Family Farms in Jackson County said that initial stigma has “already pretty much destroyed our market.”

Like any other major outbreak, there’s lots of commentary about how the outbreak confirms preexisting notions: that more needs to be done, that federal regulations would have made a difference, that there should be more testing. After 20 years of watching and participating in this food safety stuff, the lack of imagination and creativity is staggering.

Victims and consumers remain the stray sheep in the food safety marketplace.

As pointed out by News-Sentinel.com, knowing the name of Tim Chamberlain’s farm does nothing to help consumers. All the talk of traceability is a joke and consumers have no microbial food safety choice at retail.

Hucksters who promote produce on trust alone are no better than snake-oil salesthingies:

Kelly’s Fruit Market in Madison County is taking extra steps to make sure its customers are safe. “We have the finest produce in Madison County,” explains Kelly Ratliff, owner of Kelly’s Fruit Market. “We know exactly where all of our produce is coming from and we always make sure it’s the highest quality … with most of our produce that we have and that we sell I can tell you every single growers name, who grows it where it’s grown and a little bit about their family.”

But can you tell me their water quality testing results? What soil amendments are used? The verification of employee handwashing and sanitation?

Cantaloupe growers in other parts of the country are frustrated. Probably not as much as the families of the dead and sickened, but frustrated.

Trevor Suslow, research extension specialist at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California-Davis, said he thought more could have been done to educate growers across the country about safe harvesting, handling and distribution in the wake of last year’s deadly listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.

“I think there was a missed opportunity,” Suslow said Aug. 23. “I wish we could have done a better job of getting existing information to county extension agents and others who were already engaged with the smaller growers.”

But what about missed opportunities over the past decade? As noted in The Packer, the 10-year anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s import alert on Mexican cantaloupe is near, enacted after outbreaks three years in a row (and two deaths) traced to those melons. In doing so, the FDA basically killed Mexican cantaloupes to the U.S. for a few years, giving rise to offshore melon deals in Central and South America.

The clampdown on Mexican growers forced U.S. import partners to work on food safety protocols for fields and packinghouses in Guerrero, the origin of the banned cantaloupes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Mexican counterpart, SAGARPA, had to sign off on each facility before it was allowed to ship to the U.S. again.

The U.S. farms central to cantaloupe outbreaks and recalls probably wouldn’t have passed similar scrutiny.

With 10 years of guidelines, endless outbreaks, the lack of solutions remains stunning.

The Packer is finally catching on to the notion of marketing food safety at retail, which we’ve been advocating since the 2006 E. coli-in-spinach outbreak.

“The unwritten rule in the produce industry is that a company should not market its product as safer than a competitor’s.

“The thinking is that once consumers get in their heads that a fruit or vegetable is more safe, that means another is less safe, and then maybe they’ll avoid the commodity or category altogether.

“But what if your company or growing region has a strong food safety record, drafted best practices documents, followed and documented them, and then suffers for the second year in a row as a different region’s product kills consumers?”

Someone could at least try marketing microbial food safety at retail. Nothing else seems to be working. And maybe Tim Chamberlain would be more accountable.

This article was originally published August 25, 2012 on Barfblog. The bottom two images are courtesy of Dr. Douglas Powell.

© Food Safety News
  • RaDonna Fox

    There is a very simple solution to the cantaloupe problem. The farmers should be using a steam bath prior to sending the melons to market, it does not harm them, and the cost to the consumer is about .03 cents per melon, a very small price to pay. If the farmers refuse to do this it is just about as easy to throw a whole melon into a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes and make it safe for the whole family. It does not harm the melon, does not make it mushy, nothing but safe to eat. The melon harbors germs more easily in the netted rind thus allowing the bad guys to make it to market and then your table, but the solution is pretty simple. Thanks!

  • http://www.mjrcg.com Geoff J

    @ RADonna Fox Your right the netting can harbor potentially harmful pathogens, this is why it is VERY important to keep cantaloupes dry when irrigating, packing and shipping. They should even be grown in a hot dry climate. Steaming them or getting them wet before they reach the consumer is NOT a good idea. It justs create a better environment for potentially harmful bacteria to grow.

  • Jed

    Here at the CSA we get by just fine with blind faith. Every once in a while we supplement with a little prayer to steer customers away from suing us and that’s worked perfect too. I see no reason to get all sciency about food safety when I can talk my way out of it. Besides, I already have their money up front so what do members think they can do about it? Boycott? Refuse to pick up their CSA boxes? Ha, suckers.

  • John

    Jed is quite OBVIOUSLY not an actual CSA grower, but I want to make sure everybody else here realizes that.

  • Mike

    Re the TEDious talk about Blind Faith — there’s not a truer exemplar on this list of knee-jerk blind faith in Industrialized Food — whose non-transparency mantra is “Out of Sight = Out of (Consumer’s) Mind.

  • Cassandra

    Dr. Doug Powell needs to get out more. Obviously he hasn’t heard the joyful news.
    See, our amazing USDA has this fantastic food safety cure-all called “know your farmer”. It is foolproof. If only you will know your farmer, believe every line he/she lays on you as you are handing over your cash, then you will never be targeted by nasty food poisoning germs. Ever. Those pesky germs know to stay away, or else!
    Besides, after drinking the “know your farmer” koolaid your entire perspective changes for the positive. Bloody diarrhea, for example, is no longer a droll symptom of e. coli or salmonellosis — no, it is a truly wonderful cleanse like Dr. Oz recommends. You learn to crave the crampy drained sensation.
    Secure in the certain knowledge you are far healthier than common people you may even be given to intense fits of vegetarian preaching and food scolding. That’s the spirit. Bloody good show!

  • Joanie

    TEDious “Cassandra” is at it again. The real problem with USDA is the foxes are firmly ensconced on the inside of our so-called regulatory agencies to advance their own special interests at the expense of citizens, our health and our environment.

  • Ruby

    Gotta agree with you Joanie. Those danged small farm special interests have USDA by the shorthairs. Have had for a couple of years when the hobby farm lobby gutted FSMA to exempt 95% of all producers from any food safety regulation — just hang a sign at the farmers market, hawk your lifestyle farm schlock and pocket the cash. No receipts, no food safety, no paper trail, no hand washing stations, just a couple of itinerant cash transactions — “one up and one down”….then grinnin’ all the way to the bank and back next week for another big haul. Gotta luv those special interest groups!