When the goal is to get consumers back after last year’s deadly cantaloupe outbreak, the industry’s Stephen Patricio says growers need to impose “transparent yet severe and expensive restrictions on ourselves.”

And the industry groups sponsoring developmental sessions for cantaloupe growers around the country apparently agreed because they opted to drop private meetings for public Web seminars that will be accessible to anyone.

The mostly California-centered cantaloupe industry suffered a national setback last year when Colorado’s Jensen Farms proved to be the source for a deadly Listeria outbreak with 146 illnesses in 28 states that caused at least 33 deaths.

Some outbreak victims and their families objected when it was reported that industry-led meetings on cantaloupe growing reforms were going to be held around the country in April, but the public would be excluded.

Now the industry-led education sessions will be held on the Web and will be open to anyone.   The private meetings the industry groups were trying to schedule around the country have been cancelled.

California has already held two public hearings on changes to the state’s marketing order for cantaloupes to make more detailed food safety regulations part of its program.  For the first time, it will be enforced statewide.

California’s action, which requires food safety audits to verify that each cantaloupe handler is in compliance and to impose penalties on those who are not, is a preview for the rest of the country.

California cantaloupe growers, like Patricio’s Firebaugh-based Westside Produce, want to avoid having another small inland producer like Jensen Farms damage the entire domestic industry.

“Our consumers must be assured that we are doing everything we can to make not only ours but all cantaloupes as safe as we possibility can,” Patricio told Food Safety News.

Through research and creative use of the state marketing order, California cantaloupe growers have never been associated with an outbreak of foodborne illness.

Though the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, the state’s cantaloupe growers focused research on preventing Salmonella after cantaloupe imported from Central America came in with that contamination. Now, California growers are scrambling to prevent Listeria.

Four industry groups are sponsoring the Web seminars. They are: the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

PMA spokesman Glenn Boyet told The Packer, the industry’s news service, that the seminars will be “technical and scientific but all who want to participate are welcome.”

The first “Webinar” is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 2 PDT.  The schedule for the rest of the month will be announced during the first seminar.  It’s expected that several more meetings will be held online.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who is also publisher of Food Safety News, thanked the industry groups for finding a way to open up the meetings to a wider audience.  “It’s always good to be transparent,” he said.

While the cantaloupe-growing season begins in April, a draft of new national food safety rules is not expected until around August 1.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first cited concern about cantaloupe safely in 2004. Until last year’s Listeria outbreak, cantaloupe contamination usually involved the various strains of Salmonella.

  • All I can say is good.
    A few weeks ago I posted this:
    Over the weekend I penned for Food Safety News, “Excluding Consumers a Bad Idea.” It was based upon reports that the cantaloupe industry was planning a series of meeting across the United States to develop a “new cantaloupe guidance document.” The report also made it clear that the public was not welcome:
    The meetings are open to growers, buyers, auditors, academic experts, as well as regulators from state agencies, the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They are not open [to] the public.
    I asked some of my clients their thoughts – some are below and some are going out in a press release in the morning.
    They need to hear our stories
    I am disturbed and upset by the news that the general public, (i.e. the people that were affected) are not allowed in the upcoming industry meetings on the recent Listeria outbreak. As the daughter of one of the victims, this has been a life changing event, not only for my father who no longer leads the quality lifestyle he once had, but for our entire family, especially my mother, who now has to assist, supervise and monitor him on a daily basis. They need to hear our stories. People that have been affected should be allowed to speak about what we all have been through and are continuing to go through so the seriousness of foodborne illnesses can be relayed in a personal manner. Why should anyone get sick from eating a cantaloupe?
    – Jennifer Exley
    If those in industry do not recognize the full weight of our losses, how can they make fully informed decisions regarding the importance of improved practices? Treating all of the illnesses and deaths as mere statistics will not have the same impact as hearing the voices of our families and seeing the faces of our loved ones.
    – Kathleen Gilbert
    In September 2011, our daughter was born 3 months prematurely with a listeria infection in her bloodstream. She spent the first weeks of her life fighting off this infection and subsequently spent 90 days in an NICU unit, causing endless days/nights of concern for our family and incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. She is home now where her feedings are supplemented with a gastrointestinal feeding tube. She attends physical and occupational therapy weekly and has numerous doctor appointments to monitor her developmental progress and physical growth. I find it appalling that the cantaloupe industry, whose failure in every chain of product movement from grower to store shelf has caused the pain my daughter and family has endured, would hold meetings on food safety and not include the victims who suffered in this outbreak.
    – Dave and Michelle Paciorek
    A Broken System
    If the public is not invited, what are they trying to hide? Stricter guidelines will be taken back to DC, but by the time congress is involved all the parties’ lobbyists will water these down. A tea party congressperson will make a one-minute speech on the floor of the house decrying the intrusive federal government and excessive regulations to these poor growers, auditors and brokers. He or she will not once mention food safety is involved with these supposedly excessive regulations.
    – Paul Schwarz
    It’s unbelievable to me that in the 21st century there still exists an entire industry that doesn’t understand nor respect the importance of the customer’s voice. It’s this kind of apathy and ignorance that caused 34 people to lose their lives in the largest food borne illness outbreak in the United States. It’s telling that both of these statements are referring to the cantaloupe industry. It’s time for this industry to hear from their consumers and victims.
    – Holly Pixler
    Shock and Anger
    It is hard to believe the people affected by most by these decisions that will be made regarding food safety are not allowed to participate.
    – Nicole Hardcastle
    My mother, Elaine Babcock, died along with 35 other innocent people by the deadly bacteria Listeria in an outbreak that has affected hundreds of people and left them wondering what could have possibly caused such a horrific situation to happen in this country. I’m outraged that the cantaloupe industry is barring the public from the upcoming safety meetings. I urge you to open the discussions and make this process transparent.
    – Thad Hayes
    It is really upsetting to think, that as victims of the Listeria outbreak, the public and we are not allowed to attend these meetings. I wonder if any of these organizations would look at this differently had they and their loved ones been directly affected. We are the ones whose lives have been changed forever.
    – Richard & Carol Benell
    We feel tremendously let down and ignored. This is very disappointing for those of us who lost a family member in this outbreak. After the deaths of over 30 people, I would think that the industry would want to be open and upfront with upcoming discussions to insure that this doesn’t happen again.
    – Keith Drinkwalter
    Left to Speculate
    By not inviting the buying public to the cantaloupe safety meeting, it makes one wonder what they are trying to hide. More than 30 people have already died from eating tainted cantaloupe due to shoddy handling practices. I’m afraid we could be heading for another outbreak?
    – Terri Blackmon
    I have just lost my husband of 45 years due to utter failure in the cantaloupe industry. What else are they hiding if they are keeping the public out of these meetings?
    – Penny Hauser
    Transparency is a good thing – the cantaloupe industry and our government should try it.

  • I am happy to see the cantaloupe industry open up these meetings. I attended the hearing in Fresno CA earlier this month and listened to several growers, packers, shippers and brokers express concern with USDA for complete accountability within California. The people in attendance are feeding this product to their families and want to be doing the best job they can for all of us.