Cantaloupe Prices Drop As Production Ramps Up

Still reeling from the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in decades, which continues to grow, the cantaloupe industry has an uphill battle ahead, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data released Monday.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service Vegetables and Melons Outlook report shows that last summer wholesale cantaloupe prices were actually 16 percent higher than previous years, which, under normal circumstances, is great news for the industry. But since the listeria outbreak caught national media attention, the price has dropped by 33.6 percent.

Potentially making the market situation worse, the department’s analysis predicts that the remaining Fall harvest of cantaloupe will rise more than 10 percent, with much of the increase coming from Arizona.

Though Colorado is a minor player in the cantaloupe industry–producing only 2 percent of the U.S. market–the outbreak linked to the Rocky Ford region is having a major impact on the industry.

Regardless of where they were grown, more melons on the market combined with potential for decreased consumer demand “will put pressure on the melon sector, particularly cantaloupe,” predicts ERS.

Nearly a thousand miles away from the point of contamination in Colorado, the San Joaquin Valley of California sustained a “dramatic” price reduction in less than a month’s time in direct response to the listeria outbreak, according to USDA. In mid-September the shipping-point price for a half carton was $8.25. By early October, it was $5 per half.

According to USDA, cantaloupe prices usually go up in the fall after the summertime spike supply is consumed.   

“While it is too early to determine overall cantaloupe price impacts from lost consumer confidence and any resulting shifts in demand, these could also be more widespread across multiple growing regions and/or commodities,” said ERS in the report. “Spillover costs in terms of compliance with new or enhanced food safety programs specific to cantaloupe will be likely. In addition, at least one buyer has announced they are developing a test-and-hold program for their cantaloupe suppliers.”

Considering the two-week shelf life of the fruit, there should be no Colorado cantaloupe still on the market, but the outbreak continues to have an economic impact–on top of its tragic, and far-reaching human toll.

Because California and Arizona are the main domestic suppliers in the fall, producers in these states could take the biggest hit if consumers decide to avoid cantaloupe altogether.

California and Arizona lead the U.S. cantaloupe industry, producing 58 and 26 percent of the domestically grown melons. More

than a third of cantaloupes consumed in the U.S. are imported. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 133 confirmed cases of people becoming ill, 28 deaths, and one miscarriage in 26 states linked to the contaminated cantaloupes.

“More illnesses are expected since Listeria has a long incubation period–on average 1 to 3 weeks, but consumers can become sick 2 months or more after eating contaminated product,” reported USDA. “The current outbreak is now the largest incident due to Listeria in terms of deaths since a 1985 outbreak linked to Mexican-style soft cheese resulted in 52 deaths.