Following one of the deadliest U.S. outbreaks on record, the cantaloupe industry appears to be moving toward industry-imposed regulation to prevent another food-safety catastrophe and boost consumer confidence.
Though a single farm in Colorado was the epicenter of the high-profile Listeria contamination last fall, California growers are calling for a statewide marketing safety agreement, according to reports out of an industry meeting in San Diego this week. The model will likely be similar to the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement adopted after the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak, which killed 6 and sickened hundreds, rocked the leafy greens industry.
California growers hope to have a mandatory food-safety program in place before the next harvest season.
“The California industry heard the message loud and clear, that the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement-type mandatory government audits are needed and necessary,” said Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce and chair of the Center for Produce Safety advisory board, on a call with reporters Thursday. “Overwhelmingly there is consensus for a mandatory state-wide program.”
“We are asking for and anticipate participation from other western cantaloupe producing regions and we hope that other cantaloupe producers around the world will follow our lead,” added Patricio in a statement. “We are taking this step for two reasons – first because it is the right thing to do. Consumers must be assured that our products are safe. Additionally, it was made clear by the participants at yesterday’s Center for Produce Safety working symposium that the trade is demanding nothing less than a program based upon mandatory government inspections.”
The new program will be based on cantaloupe-specific good agricultural practices (GAPs), which the industry is scrambling to update.
The Listeria outbreak, the first for cantaloupes, killed 31 people and sickened at least 146 in 28 states. While only cantaloupes from Colorado’s Jensen Farms were contaminated — and the CDC and FDA repeatedly said cantaloupes from other growers were safe — the outbreak frightened consumers and shut down the U.S. summer-harvest season early, costing field workers their jobs and the industry an estimated $50 million.
This week a Congressional investigation report affirmed the FDA’s earlier conclusion that the outbreak could have been avoided had Jensen Farms followed established guidance for processing melons. Unsuitable processing equipment, and failure to chlorinate wash water, were two likely causes of the outbreak.
“There is going to be a review of all existing guidances and a plan to write updated guidance for cantaloupe specifically,” Patricio told reporters. “It was a loud message from the meeting that we need cantaloupe-specific guidance.”
The Center for Produce Safety, a public-private partnership with the University of California, Davis, hosted the industry working group to discuss the future of cantaloupe safety. The meeting — which was attended by growers from Georgia, Texas, California, Colorado and Latin America — also identified the most pressing research needs for the industry.
Research priorities include better understanding what treatments and interventions can be used (and how to validate them), better understanding the prevalence of certain pathogens, and better understanding how pathogens exist and survive on the surface of fruits and vegetables. The Center for Produce Safety is planning to publish requests for research proposals by Feb. 1.