California growers focus on getting their cantaloupe safety message out
California melons will begin bearing a “Buy California Grown” sticker in an effort to distinguish the state’s crop from others.
Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce and the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and a grower himself, said that contamination outbreaks like the recent one surrounding melons grown at Chamberlain Farms in Indiana and a recall of melons from Burch Farms in North Carolina after samples tested positive for listeria – not to mention last year’s deadly outbreak traced to melons grown by Jensen Farms in Colorado – taint the whole industry.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” he said. “I spend probably 80 percent of my day talking to members, talking to members of the press, trying to dissuade hysteria.
“I do that with confidence because I know we’re doing things right. It’s disheartening to know that because of others who aren’t doing things right, we’re being punished.”
Doing things right means that California growers, who signed on to a mandatory marketing order this past winter, participate in government-based food safety validation and auditing. Administered by the state department of agriculture, it’s paid for through assessments on members.
California’s never had a cantaloupe contamination outbreak, Patricio said.
“California is unique with low humidity, low moisture – there aren’t some of these issues that are going on in other climates,” he said. “They grow in a high bed, on the dirt, but not in dirt or wet conditions. The pathogens aren’t just there on the ground, they’re not endemic to the product.”
And most California cantaloupe are field packed, limiting opportunities for contamination. Most issues arise in handling, Patricio said, using the example of Jensen Farms, where he said bacteria from dirty water that had been used to rinse cantaloupe got onto rollers used on the drying side.
The North Carolina farm was using a potato washing system that created a similar effect, he added.
“By not sanitizing the dry side, whatever you were washing off was getting onto your other equipment,” Patricio said. “That’s where the pathogens get in.
“The criticism is not the wash. The wash worked. It’s what you washed off that created the problem.”
Underlying it all, Patricio said, is the importance of keeping food safe for the public.
“It’s a tragedy we can’t lose sight of,” he said. “It means we need to redouble our food safety efforts every day, every hour.”