California cantaloupes will soon come with the assurance that they meet strict food safety standards, thanks to a mandatory statewide program that includes both announced and unannounced inspections and certification under government oversight. The plan is for the program to begin this season, which lasts into the fall, but approval of an audit checklist by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still forthcoming. The goal is to get that done as quickly as possible. A historic move, this is the state’s first mandatory food safety program implemented by a commodity board. In designing this program – which covers each step of the melon production process from the field to the produce department – the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board collaborated with Western Growers; Trevor Suslow, food safety research specialist at the University of California-Davis Extension; and food safety scientists at Intertox, a risk management firm. The goal was to come up with a program tailored to FDA-approved food safety guidelines for growing, shipping and packing conditions in California. The board approved the guidelines earlier this month. A heavy hitter, California provides 70 percent of the cantaloupes sold in this country. During the state’s 5-month season, the industry typically packs and ships around 30 million cartons of cantaloupes. A carton contains 12 to 18 cantaloupes. These guideline may appear to be a bold, new move on the part of the industry, but Stephen Patricio, chairman and CEO of Westside Produce – a grower, packer and shipper of cantaloupe and honeydew melons – told Food Safety News that this heavy push for food safety is actually a continuation of “business as usual.” “California’s shippers and handlers have been following food safety standards guidance for the past 20 years,” he said. “It’s part of our culture. We’re proud of our record.” Patricio says he likes the new program because it has the benefit of setting California cantaloupes apart from cantaloupes from other states and countries. “We’ve been meeting these standards with no means to distinguish ourselves,” he said. “Now we have the authority to mandate. This will give us government validation for what we’re doing.” Auditors from the California Department of Food and Agriculture will be working under USDA authority. Patricio describes the new program as “the right thing to do.” “We want to be here long-term and to continue providing safe and healthy food for customers, as well as for our families and workers.” Pointing to the 100 percent thumbs-up of the program by those voting, Patricio described that as “absolutely unprecedented. The vote also included a thumbs-up to raising assessments from 1.2 cents per carton to 2 cents per carton to help pay for the program. UC food safety researcher Suslow told Food Safety News that it’s always “a step forward to demonstrate through independent, objective, and standardized audits that an industry sector has the highest level of compliance with a continually evolving framework for food safety — in this case 100 percent.” He also said that the review process is still ongoing, which means that the specifics of the final marketing order standards are not yet established. A marketing order is a concerned group of of agricultural professionals or growers who band together to support their commodity and partner with their state’s agriculture department to make sure everything is done correctly. As such, it is a quasi state authority. Like Patricio, John Gilstrap of Monfort Management, who manages the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, told Food Safety News that the new program is great news for consumers. “It will give them peace of mind about California cantaloupes,” he said. “They’ll know that they’ve been grown and handled under the safest conditions possible. It allows us to establish consumer confidence in a product. We hope it will set us apart, if and when a foodborne illness outbreak connected to cantaloupes grown somewhere else happens.” Another plus, he said, is that “inspectors can shut a place down if they see health problems.”

He also described the program as the “gold standard” for other states, some of which are crafting similar programs.

On the national level, National Cantaloupe Guidance, a collaboration between academics, regulators, consumers and industry, is currently developing guidelines that focus on food safety practices specific to cantaloupes and netted melons. Go here to read a draft of the guidelines. As it stands now, Gilstrap said, every cantaloupe grown in California will be covered by this marketing order. But some groups would like an exemption for the small-scale growers.  “We don’t know yet if the exemption will be granted,” Gilstrap said. In May, when the state’s cantaloupe handlers voted overwhelmingly in support of the program, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross likened the state’s oversight of cantaloupe safety to the way it handles the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which was designed to ensure that the necessary food safety practices are being followed in growing and handling leafy green crops such as spinach. “There is clearly overwhelming support among the California cantaloupe industry for a food safety program that operates with government oversight,” she said at the time. The Trigger Triggering this move on the part of the state’s cantaloupe industry was last year’s Listeria outbreak – one of the deadliest in U.S. history – which was traced to contaminated cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado. In that 28-state outbreak, at least 32 people died and hundreds of people were sickened, some of them severely. Listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1,600 people become ill with Listeria each year. Of these, 260 die. Not surprisingly, many consumers panicked when they learned about the Listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupes from Jensen Farms and stopped buying cantaloupes altogether — no matter where they were grown. Demand plunged. And many growers in other states, including California, had to watch their crops rot in the fields. The cruel irony in this was that whole cantaloupes from California have never been associated with a foodborne illnesses. Examples of other foodborne pathogens that cause disease are E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter. Determined to never again let a foodborne illness outbreak tied to cantaloupes from another state, or country, devastate demand for their melons, California’s cantaloupe handlers and shippers joined together last winter to come up with the mandatory food safety program. Those who are in compliance with the standards will receive certification. Those who aren’t can be decertified, an important marketplace signal for retailers. More Triggers Westside Produce’s Patricio well remembers the time back in August 1991 when the state’s cantaloupe industry got “shut down” by a Salmonella outbreak stemming from Mexican cantaloupes that were sent to Texas, where they were iced down with contaminated water. And although it had happened earlier in the growing season, the media got wind of it in August, just when many of the cantaloupe acres in California were about to be harvested. The upshot: millions of pounds of cantaloupe were left unharvested in the fields. “I had to send 800 men home,” Patricio said, pointing out that agriculture is different from other industries  because you can’t run double shifts to make up for lost time after something like that happens. By then, the crop has rotted and can’t be harvested. “That’s when I vowed I’d never let something like that happen again,” he said. But he saw it happen again and again — in 2000, 20012, and 2002 when contaminated cantloupes came in from Mexico. And as in 1991, consumer demand for cantaloupes plunged, melons rotted in the fields, and workers had to be sent home. With this sort of backdrop to contend with, Patricio said that California cantaloupe shippers and packers have had to prove to buyers, and to themselves, that they’re reaching strict food safety standards. “Now, with government certification, they’ll have something to hang their hats on — something that will give added assurances to buyers and consumers,” he said. How will consumers know? No labels will be put on the cantaloupes to let consumers know that the California cantaloupes are from the Golden State. But Patricio said that retailers will definitely be asking that question. “We’re telling our retailers to let consumers know that the cantaloupes are from California,” he said. But he also advises consumers who don’t see signs indicating where the cantaloupes in a store are from to ask their retailers. “And don’t take ‘I don’t know for an answer,'” Patricio said. “Ask them to go in the back (where fruit comes into the store) and look at the boxes to see where they’re from.” Go here for consumer tips on how to buy and handle fresh cantaloupes. Top and front page photos courtesy of Westside Produce.