What melons are good? Market food safety at retail, and back it up

Producers of any food need to own their food safety. Don’t ask government to do it, don’t ask consumers to do it: take care of things on your own end and good things will follow.

While cantaloupe growers in Rocky Ford, Colorado, may be celebrating a strong crop and high prices one year after a Listeria outbreak in nearby melons killed at least 35, growers in Indiana and North Carolina seem to be going out of their way to make things worse.

Any commodity is only as good as its worst grower.

The Rocky Ford cantaloupe crop is a fraction of last year’s, when some 2,000 acres in the Arkansas River Valley were growing cantaloupes. This year, the number is about 300 to 350 acres, according to state estimates.

The Rocky Ford growers hired a full-time food safety manager to monitor melon-picking and started paying the seasonal pickers by the hour, not by the amount of cantaloupes picked. The farmers also built a new central packing shed where all Rocky Ford-labeled melons will be washed with soap and a chlorine oxide, then rinsed with well water tested for contamination.

After being washed, the melons are cooled to reduce condensation and then packed into boxes labeled with codes traceable to the fields where the melons were grown. The boxes are packed with slips that interested shoppers can scan using a smartphone to read about where their melons originated.

These are on-farm food safety basics that should have been undertaken years ago. There have been plenty of previous outbreaks.

Now there’s a large recall of cantaloupes from North Carolina because they tested positive for Listeria – and FDA inspectors found the place was a dump and had never been checked out – and the Salmonella-in-Indiana cantaloupes that has so far killed two people and sickened 141. Who knows what inspectors will find on that farm. Retailers that buy these melons without sufficient safety checks betray consumers’ trust when they say, we have strict food safety standards.

The Food and Drug Administration said last year that melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation’s packing house. The FDA concluded that dirty water on a floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment probably were to blame.

This year, growers and retailers are going through the same contortions, apparently unaware that food safety outbreaks can happen anywhere.

In Indiana and Kentucky, grocers such as Kroger, Paul’s Fruit Market and Valu Market posted signs and told shoppers that their cantaloupes weren’t from the area where the salmonella outbreak originated.

A better strategy would be, rather than responding to every latest outbreak, get ahead of the issue, tell consumers what you or your growers do to enhance food safety and market food safety at retail.

Western Growers rightly concerned that outbreaks anywhere will affect cantaloupe sales, stated in a press release, “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.

“Public health and welfare, along with the entire cantaloupe industry, suffers when companies do not aggressively pursue food safety throughout the supply chain.

“Western Growers contends that every cantaloupe grower and shipper must have strong preventive controls in place. For a broker, distributor, retailer, grocery chain or food service 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. 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.”

That’s all great. But a press release isn’t going to reach many shoppers. Market your great food safety at retail.

The investments in food safety in California and Arizona, and a press release, get to go up against this in the mediasphere:

"You can see they’re nice cantaloupes and they taste good. I haven’t dropped over dead yet," said Owner of Mayse Farms Paul Mayse.

Quite a comfort to the dead and sick from cantaloupe over the years.

Ten days ago, Mayse says health inspectors took samples of cantaloupes from his store along St. Joseph Avenue.

"Since we haven’t had any response from the health department, I’m sure our cantaloupes are fine," Mayse said.

"There will be some people who are hypochondriacs and they’ll probably be worried about it but no, it’s not going to bother my sales I don’t think. Probably help it," Mayse said.

I’d rather know the food safety basics employed by Mr. Mayse.

A table of cantaloupe-related outbreaks is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/cantaloupe-related-outbreaks.