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Melon grower responsible for Australian listeriosis outbreak named

Percolating since January, the Australian listeriosis outbreak linked to rockmelons resulted in four deaths out of 17 confirmed cases before authorities named the grower that produced the contaminated cantaloupe.  The outbreak also isn’t likely over as Listeria is known for its long incubation period, meaning it can take several weeks after exposure before any symptoms are experienced.

The New South Wales (NSW) Food Authority says it is working with Rombola Family Farms, located in the Riverina agricultural region of Southwestern NSW, on the exact cause of the deadly outbreak.

Neither the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) nor the NSW Food Authority named Rombola Family Farms two weeks ago when the agencies warned consumers to avoid eating rockmelon because of the spike in listeriosis cases.

FRANZ’s Feb 28th statement said the NSW Food Authority was “working with the grower” to remove contaminated melons from the supply chain and consumers should throw away any they had at home. The NSW investigation is expected to result in some new food safety requirements for growers, who will likely embrace the changes in hopes of rebuilding their lost business both in Australia and overseas.

As demand for Australian rockmelon collapsed since the recall warning, it was the industry that pressured the NSW Food Authority to name the responsible grower.

“I know that growers would like the NSW Food Authority to name that grower,” said the Australian Melon Association’s Diane Fullelove. She believes only the one grower is producing bad melons.

On its website, Rombola Family Farms claims to be “one of the biggest melon growers in Australia!” Rombola Family Farms encompasses about 10,000 acres and employs up to 200 seasonal contract employees.

“The Rombola Family have been farming for over fifty years since arriving in Australia from Calabria, Italy in the 1950’s,” according to its website. “The family was part of a large group of Italian migrants who helped transform the Riverina and surrounding areas into a dynamic, enterprising agricultural region.”

Food safety experts, however, say naming the responsible grower is not enough if Australia wants to win back consumer confidence. Dr. Douglas Powell, who writes from Australia for the popular Barfblog, says all growers must address “the basic elements of any on-farm food safety program.”

Two years ago, the 300 growers that comprise Australia’s melon industry were left reeling when the NSW Food Authority linked  “a spike in Salmonella Hvittingfoss cases” to Red Dirt Melons grown in the Northern Territories.  About 100 Australians were sickened, but survived, and the melon industry only recently recovered.

Listeriosis is the illness caused by consuming food contaminated with the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes.   Cantaloupes or rockmelons, cold meats, raw seafood, soft cheeses, sprouts and both vegetable and fruit salads are among the foods most often contaminated by the Listeria bacteria.

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