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Illiana melon growers target 100 percent food-safety certification

The Illiana Watermelon Association, which represents grower-shippers from Illinois and Indiana, launched a strong educational program to ensure that its membership was prepared for future food-safety expectations.

Brad Johnston, chairmen of the association, along with many other individuals, helped lead Illiana’s effort with a weeklong seminar in March 2013. Those grower-shippers in attendance who did not already have a food-safety program were trained in the 2013 season. Many firms who were already certified also participated in that March program.

“It was good for new growers to hear from growers who have been through the training and certification,” said Johnston.

So, last growing season approximately 95 percent of Illiana’s watermelon growers and shipper was certified. Johnston expects that figure will reach near 100 percent in the 2014 season as it commences in a few weeks.

Furthermore, over 90 percent of the cantaloupe growers in the region were present for this training and certification, meaning cantaloupe food safety in Indiana and Illinois benefited by the work of the Illiana Watermelon Association.

Illiana’s headquarters is in Vincennes, IN. Johnston has been involved in Illiana for a decade.

He said the organization’s “main drive” is to nurture watermelon sales, health benefits and food safety nationwide for Illinois and Indiana members. The March 2013 effort was to provide growers and shippers with consistent food-safety information.

Involving 55 grower-shippers, the mass-training exercise was less expensive for participants than it would have been on an individual basis. This was subsidized by the Illiana Watermelon Association, sponsors and by the attendees. The focus was to create a cohesive group to launch the program. The program focused on HACCP certification and GFSI training “under the principles of Primus GFSI certification.”

Johnston said that locally, the Indiana Department of Health encouraged watermelon and cantaloupe growers to be certified with their food-safety programs in 2013. He added that the Indiana Department of Health proved to be very helpful in its food safety effort and assistance.

But, “expecting to be under the microscope” figuratively if not literally, “our goal was to be ahead of the curve in 2013 and we commend all of the growers of watermelon and cantaloupe in Indiana and Illinois who got trained and certified,” said Johnston. “From all comments across the board, all of the growers and shippers stepped up and our food-safety expectations increased dramatically for 2013. I am proud of our grower base and the commitment they made in food safety. As an association, we were aggressive in training and pushed our grower base ahead of the curve. Food-safety certifications were not required at the time from federal or state governments, but we took it upon ourselves to be leaders.”

At one time the produce industry may have viewed food-safety certifications as a means to gain competitive advantage, Johnston said. That advantage is still be there, but these certifications “are now a necessity and as an industry we need to have everyone be certified. Then, as a whole we’ll be stronger than if we work as individuals.”

Johnston said that, to the best of his knowledge, the March 2013 training and certification seminar was percentagewise “the largest state attended certification program in the country for watermelons.”

A USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant supported Illiana’s educational effort.