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California calls for more buyer scrutiny of local cantaloupes

California melon growers are clearly frustrated after the second straight year of seeing their market potentially damaged because of food-safety issues far from the fields in the Golden State.

This time of year, California is the major supplier of cantaloupes, honeydews and other melons, but this is also the time of year when regional and local deals are in full swing.

On the heels of last fall’s deadly Listeria outbreak traced back to a cantaloupe farm in Colorado comes two cantaloupe contamination problems this year. First a North Carolina cantaloupe packing facility tested positive for the same Listeria pathogen in late July, though no illnesses were reported. Then in the middle of August, a Salmonella contamination problem arose in a cantaloupe operation in southern Indiana, which has led to at least two fatalities and sickened scores of people.

California growers are tired of it.

Western Growers Association, which represents most of the melon growers in California and Arizona, is calling for greater scrutiny by buyers as they purchase local and regional melons at this time of year.

“Western Growers contends that every cantaloupe grower and shipper must have strong preventive controls in place,” Executive Vice President Matthew McInerney told The Produce News Aug. 22. “For a broker, distributor, retailer, grocery chain or foodservice buyer to demand a vigorous food-safety and traceback program from California and Arizona cantaloupe farmers, but then purchase from a supplier without ensuring they have similar systems in place, is unconscionable.”

Mr. McInerney said that some members of the buying community do not appear to have learned any lessons from last year’s Listeria outbreak.

“As grower-shippers, we are told — even demanded — to develop and validate adherence to a strict food-safety program,” he said. “That is appropriate and we agree, but how do we reach those who fail to comply? Better yet, how do we get the entire supply chain to share that commitment on a consistent basis? The only way this tainted produce can get to the consumer is that we have enablers that empower less-than-appropriate practices because those buyers buy without question.”

He opined that some buyers allow price and marketing considerations to trump food safety. “Another supplier may be cheaper or provide a perceived local marketing opportunity, but the shared responsibility for well-being and safety of the public should always be our top priority.”

Mr. McInerney said, “We have worked with California and Arizona producers and shippers for decades to develop, maintain and improve the strongest food-safety programs in the industry. The tragic and ongoing Salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupes is associated with an isolated region in Indiana and will likely be traced to a single farm with inadequate preventive programs in place.”

Even California’s top agricultural official at the California Department of Food & Agriculture weighed in with a statement preaching the same message but in a more guarded tone.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said, “All of agriculture and the food-supply chain have a responsibility to protect people from foodborne illness. The key is a commitment to continual improvement. “

She added that in the past 20 years “there has not been one illness linked to California cantaloupes, and California continues to lead the nation in food-safety enforcement and sound agricultural practices.”

And she said that despite that excellent food-safety record, the state’s growers continue to improve their operations. “Over the last year, California cantaloupe farmers have formed a marketing order that includes mandatory government inspection of farms and packing facilities to verify compliance with stringent food-safety standards,” Ms. Ross said.

A California cantaloupe grower-shipper who said that he could only speak freely if he was not identified said that he was “very frustrated that buyers are not holding small local growers to the same standards [that California growers are complying with]. I am unwilling to accept it, but I am powerless to do anything about it.”

He said that many buyers preach one thing but then act differently if they can get a better price.

“We became GSFI-certified this year at a cost of $50,000 to $60,000,” said the anonymous grower. “It is very frustrating that we step up to a higher level of food safety at a significant cost and yet we can lose our market because others don’t. I bet the operations that have had problems in North Carolina and Indiana are not GFSI-certified.”

He added that it is ridiculous that the Food Safety Modernization Act goes so far as exempting small farms from adhering to the same standards as larger farms. “Salmonella and Listeria don’t know the size of the farm that they are on.”

Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, CA, said that the local food movement is creating opportunities for new production areas for melons and other products, and these new growers do not always have the expertise to grow the product properly.

As a longtime melon expert, and the current chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Mr. Patricio is using some of his time in the spotlight to preach a food-safety tip to competing cantaloupe growers from other areas.

“Everyone talks about the wash, but it’s not just the wash,” he said. “If you choose to wash [the cantaloupes], you better sanitize in both the wash and the drying system. That’s critically important.”

He also praised the CDFA for its efforts in ensuring that food safety is the number one goal in California as it should be elsewhere. “I’d like to thank CDFA and Karen Ross specifically for helping us enact our mandatory food-safety auditing program as quickly as we did.”

The Listeria problem last year cost California melon producers millions of dollars, but so far this year the contamination issues haven’t had the same effect on the market. In mid-August, the market price was about $6 to $7 f.o.b., which is a fairly good market for this time of year, though there is no way to measure whether it could be much better.

Several wholesalers weighed in on that question and said that California melons are holding up pricewise. In fact, it appears that the state’s food-safety record may be playing a role.

Jim Storey of Quaker City Produce Co. in Philadelphia said, “I’ve never moved so many California cantaloupes as I have this past week. They have it priced right and everyone wants the California product. The movement is tremendous. It is not like last year when you couldn’t get rid of them.”

Chris Larsen, vice president of John Panozzo Produce Inc. in Kankakee, IL, who sells both California and regional melons, has noticed the same phenomenon.

“Maybe it is because there are so many recalls of so many products,” he said. “Hamburgers, lettuce, cantaloupes — it doesn’t seem that it matters to the consumers any more. Five years ago, if we would have this kind of issue, sales would have stopped. But not this year. Melon movement is pretty good.”