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FDA to Cantaloupe Industry: Mind Your Melons

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a letter to cantaloupe producers Monday urging them to mind their food safety Ps and Qs this year after the two previous growing seasons yielded nationwide foodborne illness outbreaks linked to the melons.

“We want to underscore the importance of [best] practices for the cantaloupe industry in light of recent outbreaks and pathogen positive sample findings associated with fresh cantaloupes,” wrote Michael Landa, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the letter.

The agency added teeth to its words by announcing that it will begin a new inspection regime at cantaloupe packinghouses that involves collecting samples to test them for pathogens.

The letter marked FDA’s second plea to the cantaloupe industry to shape up in the past two years. The agency wrote a similar letter in November of 2011 in the wake of a Listeria outbreak traced to contaminated melons from a Colorado farm that sickened 147 people and killed 33 that year.

The 2011 letter called on cantaloupe growers, processors, packers and shippers to make sure their production practices aligned with the latest guidance for reducing contamination on melons. The agency pointed to the problems found at Jensen Farms — where the Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes originated —  as an example of what not to do.

Then, less than a year later, in early July of 2012, people began to fall ill with Salmonella infections that would ultimately be linked to cantaloupes from a company in southwestern Indiana. That outbreak, which lasted two months, eventually sickened 264 people. A total of 94 people were hospitalized and 3 died as a result of their infections.

Now the FDA has repeated its call for tighter cantaloupe safety controls, and has added the findings from its investigation of the 2012 outbreak — linked to Chamberlain Farms of Owensville, IN — to provide more examples of how things can go wrong.

“This letter is intended to reiterate our concern regarding possible contamination of cantaloupes with Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) and other pathogens, particularly given the availability of new information since we issued the last letter,” writes Landa. “We want to highlight the critical importance of safe and sanitary production and handling of cantaloupe.”

Among the safety violations FDA found at Jensen Farms were:

– Culled cantaloupes were carried to a cattle operation on a truck that traveled to and from the plant. Employees may have tracked Listeria into the plant from the truck, which parked next to the packing facility.

– Water was pooled on the floor next to equipment and employee walkways inside the packing plant. Listeria harbors in standing water and wet places, and can spread to conveyors and other packing equipment from these reservoirs. Samples collected from such standing water tested positive for one of the Listeria strains linked to the outbreak.

– The packing equipment could not be easily cleaned and sanitized. Inspectors saw “visible product buildup” on food contact surfaces.

– Recently purchased washing and drying equipment had been previously used. It was corroded and hard to clean, and had been used on other types of produce.

– Melons warm from the field were not pre-cooled before going into cold storage, so condensation on the melons was likely and would have created ideal conditions for Listeria growth.

 The problems that the agency noted at Chamberlain Farms in Indiana included:

- Food contact surfaces included porous materials such as wood and carpet that can harbor bacteria and are hard to clean.

- Employees did not clean frequently enough to prevent contamination. Black, green and brown buildup was observed on conveyer belts and debris was observed beneath one of these mechanisms.

- Standing water with algae growing in it was observed below the packing line.

- Pipes used to carry water that was sprayed on the cantaloupes were leaking and rusting.

- The levels of chlorine in the cantaloupe dunk tank were not being monitored.

- The main garbage can was overflowing with waste.

FDA referred cantaloupe producers to the agency’s 2009 guidance on melon safety and its 1998 guide to fruit and vegetable safety for a more comprehensive review of best practices.

The agency also acknowledged the measures many in the industry have taken to improve the safety of their product.

“We applaud the actions taken by many in the cantaloupe industry to address food safety issues,” said Landa in the letter. “We are confident that the industry, including growers, harvesters, sorters, packers, processors, and shippers, will continue to work to provide safe cantaloupes to American consumers.”

Beginning in 2012, a group of academics, regulators, consumers and industry participants came together to begin developing a National Cantaloupe Guidance, which became available Monday, the same day FDA issued its letter to the industry.

In June of 2012, California cantaloupe growers went as far as agreeing to mandatory safety regulations for all growers in the state. Growers now must have government certification and are subject to unannounced inspections.

And earlier this month, cantaloupe growers located in the eastern United States came together to form their own food safety coalition, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association. The group will provide certification to members in the region that meet its food safety standards, which are based on the national cantaloupe food safety guidance but were developed with an eye to the growing conditions specific to this region, which is moister than western cantaloupe growing regions.

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