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Cantaloupe Board adopts mandatory government-inspected food-safety audits

The California cantaloupe industry has adopted a mandatory government-inspected food-safety program.

"We have the only mandatory program in the produce industry that invites government auditors in to inspect the operations," John Gilstrap, manager of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board in Dinuba, CA, told The Produce News. "That is what the board's main focus is this year."

Marilyn Dolan, vice president of The Marketing Department and a consultant to the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, elaborated on the program.

Although the California cantaloupe industry has been very much involved in food-safety programs for years, Dolan said that even though "there have never been any food-borne illnesses associated with" California cantaloupes, there have been food-safety issues with cantaloupes from other areas, and over the past two years, the industry had come to realize "that they really needed to step things up a notch in terms of food safety."

So a referendum was held "to add an amendment to their existing marketing order that has been in place since 1988, so that they can have what is now the first mandatory government inspection program in the U.S. produce industry that looks at all aspects of operations, including farming, packing, cooling and transportation."

That referendum took place in early 2012. In June 2012, The Produce News reported, "The board, which has long been deeply involved the development and dissemination of voluntary food-safety guidelines has also now adopted a mandatory food-safety compliance component."

The change "came about by an industry vote with overwhelming support," with nearly 75 percent of eligible voters participating and an unprecedented 100 percent of the participants voting in favor of the amendment.

Subsequent to the referendum, the industry has adopted a checklist of 156 food-safety checkpoints that auditors will look at, Dolan said.

The mandatory inspection program is in place, and audits "are going on right now," she said. "Everybody is subject to being audited for the 2013 harvest and production season."

The audits and the food-safety standards on which they are based are derived from more than 20 years of cantaloupe-specific, industry-supported university research on food safety, with input as well from government and food safety experts, Dolan said.

"The California cantaloupe industry has conducted research into how to grow high-quality melons and also looking at the food-safety practices," she said. "Over the years, they have implemented these science-based research activities," and many growers and handlers have "changed the way they farm and pack and cool cantaloupes" to make sure the product is safe.

The mandatory audit applies to all commercial cantaloupe growers in the state of any size, Dolan said. "There is no exemption for size."

Inspections will be conducted by California Department of Food & Agriculture auditors who have been trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said.

"That is basically to ensure accountability, uniformity and consistency across the industry," said Dolan. "The government auditors will audit the entire spectrum of the operations."

It is not sufficient for growers and handlers to achieve a "minimum score" on the 156-point checklist, as is the case with some third-party food-safety audits, she said. In this program, 100 percent compliance is required, and any deficiencies found during a scheduled or unscheduled audit must be corrected immediately.

The program will employ a certification mark, Dolan said, but "I don't think anyone this year will be putting it on the product." It is yet to be determined just how that will work. But "initially it will be on the bill of lading."

The cantaloupe board will be launching a new website that was expected to be online by early or mid-June, at www.calcantaloupess.com.

"On the website, they are going to post the mandatory food-safety standards and a list of the companies who are undergoing the mandatory food-safety audit," Dolan said. It will also have other information about the industry's food-safety program as well as "a lot of consumer information" such as "recipes, usage ideas, nutrition and selection and handling."

Eventually, "they are going to be doing promotions and contest and things like that for consumers as well," she added.