Cantaloupe growers working with state, CSU on rigorous food safety program

By Mark Wolf

Eleven cantaloupes rested on the produce display in a suburban supermarket earlier this week. Steps away, sliced cantaloupe was among the fruit arrayed in a ready-to-eat party tray.

Soon, surely, a shopper will heft one of the cantaloupes, inspect it briefly to make sure the stem end isnt rough and there are no soft spots, then place it into a cart next to a bunch of asparagus. Perhaps the shoppers mind will flash back to last summer when cantaloupes made headlines for all the wrong reasons: recall, outbreak, listeria, illness, death.

These cantaloupes bear stickers indicating they are from Honduras. The domestic season is still a few months away, but reminders of last years deadly outbreak continue to surface. The deaths of two Colorado residents in recent weeks were tied to the tainted cantaloupes.

A congressional report in January linked the outbreak to cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms of Holly.

Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration identified potential problems at Jensen Farms, including the failure to properly chill the melons before moving them into cold storage and not using chlorinated water to wash the cantaloupes.

The farm also reportedly had purchased potato processing equipment and retrofitted it as a hydrocooler for melons, the report said.It concluded that the outbreak likely could have been prevented if the producer had maintained its facilities according to FDA guidelines.

Farmers worried

Cantaloupe growers in the Rocky Ford area famous for its sweet melons were dismayed that even though the tainted cantaloupes were grown about 90 miles away, their product was associated with the contaminated fruit.

Even more than worrying about the weather and growing conditions, this year farmers in the region are consumed by one question: When Rocky Ford cantaloupes begin appearing in stores this summer will consumers believe the product is safe?

A collaboration involving the state Department of Agriculture, Colorado State University and the growers aims to ensure that the harvest is safe and that consumers are reassured. Cantaloupe is an $8 million segment of Colorados $20 billion agriculture economy.

Officials from CSU will visit the farms of each grower in the newly formed Rocky Mountain Cantaloupe Association to assist them in assembling and implementing good handling policies.

We got word of a new technology to help identify pathogens on the cantaloupe before its loaded on the truck. We want to work with CSU to validate that, said John Salazar, Colorado agriculture commissioner. That will instill consumer confidence that anything on the truck has been sampled to be free of listeria and if theres something thats not good it can be thrown back into the wash.

John Salazar

Salazar and the growers expect to inaugurate a program that would place a label/sticker on each cantaloupe certifying that the producer was from a defined Rocky Ford geographic area and met GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards via an inspection by CSU. The program would be funded by a one-cent levy on each cantaloupe produced in the Rocky Ford region.

Third party auditors private firms who conduct inspections of farm operations came under criticism in the government report, and the state is prepared to take over that inspection function for any producer who requests it.

Planting season weeks away

Farmers will be planting cantaloupe by mid- to late-April.

Were on the fast track. We have to get it done, said Salazar. We already have CSU out in the field.

Michael Hirakata, a partner in Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford and president of the new growers association, said he was very concerned about the viability of the cantaloupe market. Thats the way we make our living.

His family has been farming in the region for nearly a century and has been packing and shipping produce for 40 years. He said the farm is building a new packing shed, installing new coolers and providing better traceability at their operation, which produces about a million cantaloupes each year.

He is fully supportive of the states plan to assure the public that the cantaloupe crop is safe.

The group, with help from the state, plans to survey consumers to determine their attitude about buying Rocky Ford cantaloupe this summer. Hirakata said he has spoken to representatives of King Soopers and Walmart and both want to stock cantaloupe from Rocky Ford.

The first priority is educating the public that weve had a safe product for 100-plus years, he said.

Hirakata hasnt decided if his operation will reduce production this year.

Were still sort of looking at that. We have to talk to some of the buyers and see what the public is feeling, he said.

The outbreak

Last summer, the deadliest food-borne illness outbreak in more than a quarter-century caused 140 illnesses, 34 deaths and one miscarriage across 28 states. Colorado was the hardest-hit state with 40 cases, and nearby states Texas with 18; New Mexico, 15; Oklahoma, 12; and Kansas, 11, also reported double-digit incidences. The vast majority of the cases in Colorado were along the Front Range.

While most healthy adults under age 60 show few if any affects from listeriosis, those with compromised immune systems, cancer patients, pregnant women, unborn babies and newborns are at risk for serious complications and death. The incubation period can range from three to 70 days. Common symptoms are fever, muscle aches and diarrhea.

Sharon Jones of Castle Rock, who was twice elected Douglas County Treasurer, was 62 years old, recovering from a fall and preparing to resume treatments for breast cancer when she became ill last September, said her son, W.B. Dub Jones.

She never got out of bed again after Sept. 14, said her son. She was so incredibly weak. She said, Just imagine the worst cold or flu you ever had and multiply it by 100.

Doctors at first feared she had meningitis, but Tri-County Health Department matched samples from her blood with the DNA from tainted cantaloupe from Jensen Farms, said her son.

Sharon Jones died Jan. 29.

If theres a lesson to be learned from these things its that we need to pay a lot more attention to what happened and use them to come up with strategies, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney and food safety advocate who represents 14 of the outbreaks victims, including Sharon Jones, as well as 25 persons who were sickened but survived.

I dont think theres one sort of fix. Its a holistic approach. There are a lot of opportunities for partnerships between government, consumers and industry.

Proactive approach needed

Colorado needs a fast response team composed of professionals from the food industry, growers, producers, Department of Agriculture, (Colorado State) university and public health department that can respond in real time as soon as there is a problem, Larry Goodridge, an associate professor in CSUs Center of Meat Safety and Quality, told the Governors Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 23.

Goodridge praised the states response time to the outbreak (about two weeks from reported illnesses to getting food pulled off the shelves), but said officials need to be more proactive.

Were still a very reactive society. Weve known for a long time that cantaloupe was an issue, and all of a sudden we have this major outbreak in 2011 that gets all this attention and what can we do? We need to be better than that and respond much faster.

The country needs to be more targeted in its approach to food safety, Goodridge said.

We need to place more focus on foods that we know cause most of the disease as opposed to spreading ourselves out all over the commodities, he said.

Cantaloupes represent what I would call a high-risk food with respect to food-borne illnesses. The elderly eat a large amount of cantaloupe. When it comes to food-borne illnesses the elderly are part of high-risk groups that are likely to contract food-borne illnesses.

While noting that last years outbreak was the first listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupes, he cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that cantaloupes are responsible for 59 percent of all melon food outbreaks and are more severe, resulting in more deaths and hospitalizations than other outbreaks.

Under provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the federal Food and Drug Administration is required to set standards for produce safety and mandates more frequent inspections of domestic and foreign food processing facilities.

Among its provisions is granting the FDA mandatory recall authority for all food products.

Theres a high level of interest within the administration in getting the rules out as soon as possible. Publishing multiple rules all at the same time can be a bit of a logistical challenge, but we were working expeditiously to get them out there because they represent a significant step toward building a fundamentally better food safety system, said Michael Taylor, the FDAs deputy commissioner for foods.

During a Feb. 16 speech to the Global Food Safety Conference, Taylor said farms that grow fresh produce must abide by a safety rule that will set science- and risk-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables, addressing such areas as water quality, employee hygiene, soil amendments and animal intrusion into growing fields.

The FDA is also tasked with establishing an accelerated third-party certification program to ensure the rigor, objectivity and, most importantly, the transparency of third-party audits, Taylor said.

The FDA has asked for an additional $220 million funded by new fees on food processors and handlers, money that would go to bolster inspections and implement new guidelines on how food should be grown and packed, according to the Denver Post.

Nationally, melon sales slipped 2.4 percent in dollars and suffered a 6.4 decline in volume in 2011, according to the Nielsen Perishables Group survey as reported in The Packer, which covers the fresh produce industry.

Melon volume for December alone was down 18 percent, the largest drop of any produce category, said (Steve) Lutz executive vice president of the Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group, in The Packer.

Lutz said the performance of the melon category in 2012 will be influenced by a number of variables, including planting decisions and consumer demand.

Packer editor Greg Johnson said the data dont separate cantaloupes from other melons, but there were no problems associated with watermelons or honeydews and they had decent years, so (the decline is) pretty much all cantaloupes.

Preliminary reports from California growers indicated farmers were cutting back cantaloupe production by about 25 percent, said Johnson, just because demand is down that much. The fresh produce industry is all supply and demand. They know the demand isnt going to be there and theyd be crazy to add too much supply.

Following the Colorado outbreak, the California cantaloupe market all but collapsed.

Consumer education important

Part of the food safety chain involves better consumer education about how to handle food, said Marisa Bunning, assistant professor and extension specialist in food safety at CSU.

We need to put a new focus on better explanation. A lot of the message has been general like wash under cool running water. Cantaloupes have such a complicated surface, theyre heavy. Were hearing from consumers that they dont wash them because they look good. They say theyre cutting off the rind but we know that can produce cross contamination into the melon, she said.

If you cut the melon in half you need to rinse the knife or get a second knife before you remove the rest of the rind. Melons have more complicated instructions because of the complicated nature.

Getting older consumers to change their food-handling habits can be a challenge, said Bunning.

The elderly have developed food-handling skills, but as you become older and more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses you have to change some of your habits. You have to be more conscious and that can be a fairly difficult transition.

Bunning said she has no hesitation about eating cantaloupe, which were served at last weeks Governors Forum.

I would without hesitation purchase a Rocky Ford cantaloupe if I could. I would go out of my way to do it. Weve been talking a lot about cantaloupe this winter, more than other winters. I cant wait for the season to get here.