It is no accident that cantaloupes from California have never been associated with an outbreak of foodborne illness.
But for the third time in 20 years, California cantaloupe growers are reeling from loss of consumer demand due to outbreaks involving not one of their cantaloupes but those grown somewhere else.
Each time in the past, they’ve relied on their food safety record to regain consumer support and re-upped their commitment to doing what it takes to keep their record clean.
This time, a Colorado grower shipping the “Rocky Ford” variety of cantaloupe to half the country is responsible for a 26-state Listeria outbreak that has killed at least 25 and sickened at least 98 additional people.
Consumer demand has dropped off so much that prices paid to growers are depressed to a point that some are not bothering to harvest. Each American last year ate about 8.54 pounds of cantaloupe, but it is going to be less this year.
The last time consumers stopped eating cantaloupe was after the year 2000 when a series of Salmonella saphra, Salmonella oranienburg, and Salmonella poona outbreaks involving cantaloupes imported from Mexico made consumers pause.
And before that, in 1991, it was Texas cantaloupes that were spreading Salmonella.
The San Joaquin Valley and the desert growing areas of California and Arizona produce 90 percent of the summer season cantaloupes in the U.S., or about 1.5 billion pounds of cantaloupe.
“Consumers may be reassured to know that California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of foodborne illness,” says Steve Patricio, chairman of the industry’s California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. “More importantly, we are continuing to work to ensure that this record stands.”
In 20 years of safety work, Patricio says they’ve set standards for growing and packing enforced through their marketing agreements that exceed guidance offered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
One of the principal findings of research funded by the advisory board basically calls for limiting the use of water in cantaloupe processing and handling. They’ve developed alternative methods for packing and cooling that reduce and eliminate the use of water.
Trevor V. Suslow, researcher at the University of California at Davis, found that washing cantaloupes with water or getting them wet for cooling will more likely end up spreading bacteria. He advised the industry to keep its cantaloupes dry.
That stands in sharp contrast to conditions state and federal officials found at Colorado’s Jensen Farms, the cantaloupe grower responsible for the Listeria outbreak. There, water was found pooling on the floor and a washer previously used for potatoes was being employed to clean cantaloupes. The trench drain couldn’t be reached for cleaning.
Dana Johnson, an produce specialist for Birko, a Colorado food safety firm, says drains are among the best harborage sites for growing Listeria.
While government officials have gone out of their way to say that Jensen Farms is atypical of the cantaloupe industry as a whole, Patricio says more needs to be done to improve the safety of cantaloupes in all growing regions, both foreign and domestic.
“In light of the FDA findings, it is clear that more outreach can be done to further educate and remind farmers and food safety consultants about the importance of diligently following proper food safety practices,” Patricio said.
The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and the 39-year-old California Melon Research Board have committed an additional $200,000 to the Center for Produce Safety at the UC-Davis for research to keep 30 million boxes of cantaloupes free of pathogens.