Commodity boards and marketing orders have long been serious business in California, but until now they have not been in the food safety business.
That changed earlier this week when, in a statewide referendum, California cantaloupe handlers unanimously voted to support a mandatory food safety program that will be implemented by a state commodity board.
Commodity boards and marketing orders are not new to California. The California Milk Advisory Board, now promoting competition for non-alcoholic milk shake shooters, and the Almond Board for California, encouraging almonds in cookies, are just two quick examples of commonplace activities by these boards.
Figs, olives and table grapes are but a few of the other commodities that have their own board and marketing orders to help promote and police prominent California products.
Only the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, however, has turned a state commodity board and associated marketing orders into a food safety agency, albeit one targeted only to cantaloupes.
While California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak, product safety has for years been on the board’s agenda. Going back two decades ago when imported cantaloupes were found to be contaminated with Salmonella, the advisory board launched research to keep it from happening in California.
In the past nine months since Colorado cantaloupes caused a 28-state Listeria outbreak, killing at least 32 people, Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, has been working around the clock to get a mandatory cantaloupe safety program implemented using the commodity board and marketing order system.
With this week’s vote, he’s put the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board in the food safety business. He told Food Safety News it feels good just to have “all the machinery of state government” behind it.
The unanimous vote in favor of a food safety program provides “an additional layer of assurance for consumers that our product is safe,” Patricio says.
As the commodity board implementing marketing orders, the advisory board will enforce specific regulations on growing and packing cantaloupes in California. It will mean mandatory inspections looking at what happens to cantaloupes from the field to the produce department.
California growers have responded aggressively to prevent any reoccurrence of the situation at Colorado’s Jensen Farms.
The mandatory program will impose specific regulations for growing and packing cantaloupes in California. These will include such steps as how cantaloupes are cooled to prevent condensation to how they are prepared for packing.
Patricio said these steps “formalize 20 years of food safety leadership by the California cantaloupe industry.”
For the rest of the U.S., California cantaloupe growers are counting on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) making changes in the food safety “guidance” document for melons to include specific growing and packing conditions for cantaloupes.
That has not happened yet. Speaking at this week’s Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference, FDA’s Devin Koontz said guidance documents for growing fruits and vegetables and more specifically for melons have not been changed since the deadly outbreak.
Koontz did say that any grower distributing adulterated cantaloupes into interstate commerce would be strictly liable for both civil and criminal penalties under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
“Now that these amendments to our marketing order are official, the first order of business will be to call a meeting of the Board, elect officers from the new growing regions, and determine how the food safety program will be implemented,” Patricio explained.
While changes to the federal guidance document may end up being the caboose to the train, Patricio pointed to actions in other states, including Colorado, that have cantaloupe growing areas. He said the Colorado Cantaloupe Growers Association is “working diligently” to establish a parallel food safety program for the Centennial State.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board will enforce a food safety certification program based on inspection to a set of production and handling metrics. Not complying will be an unfair trade practice.
CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said the state’s oversight of cantaloupe safety will be very similar to how it handles the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
“There is clearly overwhelming support among the California cantaloupe industry for a food safety program that operates with government oversight,” she said.
California’s new requirements will apply to all cantaloupes grown and marketed in the state. In going statewide, it brings growing areas in California’s southern desert into the program.
In the election, 70 percent of all cantaloupe handers participated in the vote, casting all their ballots for the amendments.
The quick adoption of the new system brought praise from one melon buyer.
“Produce buyers across the country should support the efforts of suppliers who are willing to provide the additional assurances we have been asking for in light of last fall’s Listeria outbreak associated with Jensen Farms cantaloupe,” said Tim York, president of the produce procurer Markon Corporation.
Patricio says Secretary Ross or her designee must attend every meeting of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, which is subject to the state’s Open Meetings and Records Act. He says that will keep the public in the loop as the new food safety agency goes about its business.