America’s biggest cantaloupe fields are found in central California — 1,300 miles away from the area of Colorado where a small, seasonal crop last year became contaminated with deadly Listeria.
But California and Arizona cantaloupe markets were devastated after those Colorado Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria were distributed to 28 states, infecting 146 people and causing at least 33 deaths.
Half the cantaloupe market disappeared almost overnight, adding millions lost by these Central Valley growers to the toll.
Now with the April growing season rapidly approaching, changes being proposed by the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board are being rolled out during two public meetings in March.
The changes to the California Cantaloupe Program, the state’s marketing order for cantaloupes, would make a more detailed food safety program part of the order. The proposed changes will be mandatory.
They will require food safety audits to verify each cantaloupe handler is in compliance and impose disciplinary actions on those who do not comply.
The program will also be extended to cover cantaloupes grown anywhere in California, rather than just the Central Valley.
The changes will build on California’s mandatory program of government inspection and quality certification for 100 percent of the cantaloupes shipped from the Central Valley. Cantaloupes produced in this area of California have never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is conducting the public hearings, which are scheduled for March 8 in El Centro, and March 12 in Fresno.
The meetings were called at the request of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.
The El Centro meeting March 8 will be held at the Imperial County Farm Bureau Offices at 1000 Broadway at 2 p.m. The Fresno meeting March 12 will be held at the Ramada Inn at 324 East Shaw at 10:30 a.m.
Additionally, written comments received at the Marketing Branch of the CDFA by March 6 will be accepted and put into the hearing record. For more information, contact CDFA’s Glenn Yost at 916-900-5018.
After those California meetings, the national cantaloupe industry also has four regional meetings planned to develop national guidelines for improved cantaloupe safety.
The first two meetings will be held in Phoenix on March 29-30 and in Irvine, CA, at the Western Growers headquarters on April 26-27.
Additional meetings will be held in the Southeast May 30-31 and Denver, June 20-21. The four regional meetings will be limited to growers, buyers, auditors, academic experts and regulators from state and federal agencies. Media briefings will be held when the meetings end.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cited concern about cantaloupe safety in 2004. Until last year’s tragic Listeria outbreak, cantaloupe contamination usually involved various strains of Salmonella.