North Carolina cantaloupe packinghouses invest in infrastructure for food safety

Following 2011’s tragic Listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak linked to Jensen Farms and a 2012 Listeria-prompted recall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a letter detailing inspection visits to U.S. cantaloupe packinghouses:cantaloupe_salmonella(25)

Because the recent outbreaks have been traced to domestic cantaloupe packinghouses, during the 2013 growing season, we intend to initiate inspections with a sampling component at a subset of the cantaloupe packinghouses in the United States.  The aim of these inspections is in part, to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify insanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers.

In preparation for the inspections, and partnering with colleagues at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and food safety friends in other states we put together a series of workshops and on-farm assessments. Michelle Danyluk and I even wrote a fact sheet on how to use sanitation to establish a clean break and define a lot in pack facilities.  FDA carried out multiple visits and took hundreds of samples. Although a full report hasn’t been released, some information trickled out and the industry took note.

According to The Grower, many North Carolina cantaloupe producers have upgraded facilities, infrastructure and sanitation protocols.

Last year at the end of the season, Southeastern Growers Association, Kenly, N.C., updated its cantaloupe packing line to all-stainless steel and this year is the first season that the company is using the new equipment.

Other companies are making similar changes to ensure the safety of their product. In 2013, Jackson Farming Co. transformed its open packing shed to an enclosed cantaloupe packing facility.

“Our job in the industry is to make changes when needed and learn how our practices could affect this industry,” said Matt Solana, vice president of operations and supply chain at Jackson Farming Co.

T.C. Smith Produce, Seven Springs, N.C., also completed a new stainless steel cantaloupe packing line in its cantaloupe packing room and used it for the first time last season.

The company wanted to improve food safety any way that they could. 

“We will continue to make adjustments as new scientific information becomes available,” said Solana. “The bottom line is that we want to continue growing and selling cantaloupes and we want to make them as safe as they can be.”

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.