As the Listeria outbreak linked to Colorado cantaloupes continues to take its toll, the government is calling on the cantaloupe industry to ramp up its food safety protocol — something some growers are already taking measures to do.
In order to prevent a repeat of the disastrous contamination of cantaloupes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a letter this month asking producers to adhere more closely to its safety guidelines for fresh produce.
Specifically, industry should work to align its practices with FDA’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables,” and the corresponding guide for “Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables,” the agency said.
FDA also suggested that cantaloupe producers heed its draft guidance on controlling Listeria in refrigerated and frozen ready-to-eat foods.
Cantaloupe industry stakeholders have already begun to reexamine growing and shipping procedures.
Food safety specialists at the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers and United Fresh Produce Association are reviewing existing research on cantaloupe safety to determine what measures are most effective in preventing contamination, according to The Packer.
Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and president of Westside Produce, a Firebaugh-CA-based cantaloupe shipping company, responded to FDA’s letter saying the California cantaloupe industry is committed to improving the safety of the fruit.
The industry has pledged $200,000 toward improving melon safety through an initiative led by the Center for Product Safety, he noted.
In Colorado, cantaloupe growers and shippers announced Tuesday that they will meet with the state’s agriculture commissioner next week to propose changes to growing and shipping processes in the state, according to The Packer.
One suggestion on the table is creating a label that shippers who have superior food safety programs could put on their products.
Another is developing training workshops for growers and shippers. These would be run by Colorado State University, the Produce Marketing Association or the state department of Agriculture.
However, with the state government currently strapped for funds, it may not have the ability to implement such courses.
Nonetheless, said the state’s Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, “Whatever we can squeeze, we will squeeze.”
Whatever the solution, it must be industry-driven and developed, says Salazar.
“We don’t want to create another layer of bureaucracy,” he said Nov. 3. “It has to be a growers’ organization that they put together.”
Some Colorado producers disapproved of the state stepping in to help reform the cantaloupe industry.
“We already have too much government,” said Gary Shane of Gary Shane Farms in La Junta, CO, according to The Packer.
“If we get more regulations, it will put the small growers out of business, and everybody here is small. It would be the demise of Rocky Ford.”
Jensen Farms, whose Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes have caused 29 deaths among 139 illnesses, marketed its melons under the Rocky Ford name. But the actual Rocky Ford region of the state is about 90 miles west of the Jensen operation.