Tomorrow in San Diego, California cantaloupe growers will meet with scientific advisers and regulators to chart a recovery course for an industry cut down by a deadly Listeria outbreak last year that did not originate in their state.
Organized by the Center for Produce Safety — housed at the University of California Davis — and the Produce Marketing Association, the by-invitation-only event is intended to point the nation’s largest cantaloupe-growing area toward a two-pronged recovery strategy.
Growers are doing the first part on their own. They are planning to dedicate fewer acres — possibly as much as one-third less — to growing cantaloupes in 2012 than they did in 2011. About 40,500 acres were available in the Golden State last year for a crop the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board estimates was worth $200 million.
The second part is a little dicier. In San Diego, cantaloupe growers are going to hear about so-called safe growing, harvesting and handling “gaps in knowledge” and the need for more “best practices” that might need attention if the industry is to win back consumer confidence.
Whether or not the San Diego meeting brings about the kind of agreement that buyers imposed on spinach growers after the 2006 E. coli outbreak remains to be seen.
CPS and PMA have planned a joint news conference for the day after the meeting, at 1 p.m. Thursday, to share information from the CPS Cantaloupe: Food Safety Priorities meeting. In announcing the press event, PMA’s Meg Miller revealed that “aggressive action” is underway.
“The produce industry has been devastated over the loss of life and illnesses caused by the Listeria outbreak involving cantaloupes in 2011,” Miller says.
Cantaloupe “now teeters on the edge of relevance,” says Greg Johnson, editor of the produce industry news site, The Packer. The deadly outbreak, which was limited to contamination involving a single Colorado grower, has “significantly damaged cantaloupe in the eyes of the consumer,” he reports.
The Packer also says cantaloupe sales and volumes were cut in half following the outbreak and have yet to improve.
Many of those involved with the Center for Produce Center were involved in the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement. Most growers accepted it in the year after the spinach-related E. coli outbreak because buyers and major retailers wanted new science-based growing and handling safety procedures.
In the past, the largest threats to California’s cantaloupe industry were Salmonella outbreaks involving foreign-grown melons imported to the U.S. That caused California growers to invest in research about Salmonella, which now has been trumped by the Colorado Listeria outbreak.
One option probably not open to California cantaloupe growers is raising enough money for a nationwide confidence-restoring marketing campaign, as was recently done for pistachios.
The collapse in cantaloupe markets resulted from the 28-state Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak that killed 31 and infected 146 between July and November 2011. It was the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in nearly 90 years.