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FDA to begin inspections of cantaloupe packinghouses in wake of high-profile outbreaks

WASHINGTON — The Food & Drug Administration plans to inspect U.S. cantaloupe packinghouses during the 2013 growing season to make sure the industry is preventing Listeria and Salmonella contamination in the wake of recent outbreaks, the FDA said in a Feb. 25 letter to the industry.

The cantaloupe industry was rocked by two major outbreaks in 2011 and 2012 that resulted in more than 400 illnesses and 36 deaths. The 2011 outbreak traced to whole cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms' production fields in Colorado was viewed as a wake-up call to industry that Listeria-tainted melons could be linked to a large-scale outbreak.

The FDA's probe into the outbreaks found unsanitary production, handling conditions and practices at the packinghouses, Michael Landa, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, wrote in his letter to industry.

The FDA plans to inspect U.S. packinghouses and urged cantaloupe growers, harvesters, sorters, packers, processors and shippers to follow two FDA guidance documents on minimizing microbial food-safety hazards.

"The aim of these inspections is in part to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify unsanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers," Mr. Landa wrote. "In the event of adverse findings, we will take action as needed to protect the public health."

FDA will be scrutinizing imports, too. "We will continue to target imported cantaloupes at the border for sampling and may engage in other surveillance and inspection activities as circumstances warrant to meet our public health regulatory mandate and responsibilities," he wrote.

Produce trade groups immediately alerted members to FDA's inspection plans.

"The cantaloupe industry has made tremendous strides in addressing food-safety priorities, and this FDA inspection program will demonstrate that," said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association. "It's imperative that every produce industry operation shows the highest commitment to food safety."

Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication at United Fresh, said that the association welcomed the inspections of cantaloupe-packing operations as the cantaloupe industry has been working on multiple initiatives to improve food safety.

"Any cantaloupe operation that isn't ready for FDA's scrutiny shouldn't be shipping fruit," he said.

Bob Whitaker, the chief scientific officer at the Produce Marketing Association, also alerted members to Mr. Landa's letter and reminded the industry that produce trade associations have just released an updated commodity-specific guidance for U.S.-produced and imported netted melons.

"This guidance reflects the current science and industry's thoughts on best practices and food safety," he said.

Mr. Landa acknowledged in his Feb. 25 letter the industry's food-safety initiatives in response to the string of cantaloupe-related outbreaks.

"We applaud the actions taken by many in the cantaloupe industry to address food-safety issues," he wrote. "We are confident that the industry, including growers, harvesters, sorters, packers, processors and shippers, will continue to work to provide safe cantaloupes to American consumers."