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Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association raises the bar for melon food-safety standards

When cantaloupe has been in the news of late, that news has not been good. A new organization, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association, hopes to change that by implementing a vetting and auditing process that could provide a competitive edge for members and peace of mind for retailers, wholesalers and consumers.

While the Western Growers Association has represented melon farmers and shippers in Arizona and California for years and is engaged in an overhaul of food-safety practices,charleshallCharles Hall there was no East Coast counterpart.

In August, a Salmonella outbreak that killed two and sickened 178 in 21 states was linked to cantaloupe from an Indiana farm. A year before, cantaloupe from a Colorado producer was responsible for an outbreak of Listeria that killed 30 people and sickened 146 others in 28 states.

The ECGA was formed in February as a response to the Colorado and Indiana outbreaks and subsequent recalls that knocked growers out of the game for months and put a major ding in consumer confidence.

The association's focus — and membership requirement — is achieving benchmarked food-safety measures based on the National Cantaloupe Food Safety Guidance document. ECGA members must pass a GFSI-benchmarked audit conducted by a third-party firm and agree to at least one unannounced audit during the harvesting and packing season, among other safety measures.

"The genesis really came from a concern of a number of growers that we needed to do something to enhance retail and consumer confidence in the Eastern industry," said ECGA Executive Director Charles Hall, who is also head of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. "We were concerned — and are still concerned — with what the market for cantaloupes will be. And the growers were concerned about the product itself. We went through kind of a self-study and knew that food safety was the key to restoring and helping to enhance confidence from the retail and consumer side."

Working from a draft of the National Cantaloupe Guidance document still in development, "last summer we took alpha comments from growers and associations and started working," Mr. Hall said.

The developmental group included growers and food-safety directors from farms and shippers.

"Basically we came up with a food-safety guideline that members of the ECGA have to follow," Mr. Hall said. "In addition to the audits, there are some standards, like monthly water testing, that are what we would call over and above what the national guidelines require."

Growers who meet and adhere to requirements for membership will be able to affix an "ECGA-Certified" label to their product and be listed in a database of approved providers that will be available to retailers.

"There's no magic about what we're doing," Mr. Hall said. "Whether growers join and become certified or just follow the same standards, we just hope they will begin to increase their food-safety standards so we don't have issues like we had before."

The initial meeting of the ECGA drew more than 40 retailers and growers to Atlanta on Feb. 11

"This was a good time to outline what exactly we thought was important to cantaloupe food safety for our group of growers," Mr. Hall said. "It's a time to show retailers and buyers the steps we're taking to ensure quality and a safe product."

Those steps are sure to cost money — big money, according to Mark Kamman of Kamman Farms in Vallonia, IN, who estimated costs to his organization will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"But that's just what you do," Mr. Kamman said. "You implement and abide by this program because it's the right thing to do for the industry and the consumer."

Officers for the ECGA's initial term will be Bill Brim of Spring Hill Produce in Tifton, GA, as president; Mr. Kamman as vice president; Paul Fleming of Frey Farms in Poseyville, IN, as treasurer; and Mr. Hall as secretary.

Said Mr. Brim, "Our goal will be to provide our retail and foodservice customers the safest cantaloupe that can be grown. We encourage retailers and brokers to commit that they won't put melons on the market unless they are confident the cantaloupes have been grown under the most stringent food-safety standards, like those set by ECGA."

Added Mr. Hall, "We're committed and we're hoping retailers will commit that they're only going to buy cantaloupes that follow similar food-safety standards. We had several retailers at the Atlanta meeting who were very committed to that. We realize they need cantaloupes on the shelf, but if you're not certain about safety, you're probably better off without them."