U.S. cantaloupe association prepares for first year of certification

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U.S. cantaloupe association prepares for first year of certification

Cantaloupe growers from the U.S. East Coast are preparing for the 2013 production season with a leg up on food safety standards and an eye on restoring industry confidence. Abstract close up of cantaloupe melon

Formalized in January, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (EFCG) will certify producers for the first time this season under its food safety matrix. The organization comes as a response to two cantaloupe-related listeria outbreaks since 2011 that have damaged the industry image.

Executive director Charles Hall spoke with www.freshfruitportal.com about the association's new standards that he says go above and beyond national production guidelines.

"Primarily, the association formed from a group of growers in Georgia, North Carolina and Indiana that were concerned about the overall cantaloupe industry and the need to enhance some of the confidence from both retailers and consumers in the cantaloupe industry,"  Hall explained.

"After the Jensen Farms issue and Chamberlain issue this summer, they got together to see what needed to happen to enhance confidence.

"The real key to this is making sure producers, shippers, retailers, everyone on the distribution chain are using good food safety practices and you’re looking at good management practice all the way up and down the chain."

The U.S. East Coast will begin its cantaloupe season in mid-April, giving the initial test to the ECGA system. By then, Hall said the first growers will be certified and listed on the organization's website.

"We hope the retailers will focus in on making sure their suppliers meet this type of standard. This isn't the only way to go but we know growers from our organization will be meeting very high standards for food safety precaution," he said.

Under ECGA requirements, producers must complete a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) bench-marked audit as a baseline. Beyond the GFSI audit, the association has added around half a dozen food safety amendments specific to eastern U.S. cantaloupe production. Finally, producers must contract a third party to perform an unannounced, mid-season "mini-audit" to ensure standards are being met.

To avoid cross-contamination, the ECGA's additional standards prohibit porous packing materials, such as carpet, that may carry bacteria, while restricting re-usage of corrugated boxes. It also prevents pathogens by regulating field flooding, facility environmental testing and compost application.

As a relatively risky produce item, cantaloupe requires stricter standards to minimize repeat health scares.

"Cantaloupes are one of those items that have a higher risk of pathogen contamination because of the netting. You have a bigger risk for some kind of pathogen or bacteria to hide in that netting than say with a watermelon that’s got a smooth skin or other produce," Hall said.

"We’re hoping this type of standard for cantaloupes will permeate across the U.S. and all of our suppliers and import groups also so we’re assured we have a high quality, safe product."

A lesson learned across the produce industry is that rebuilding confidence in the category will take hard work and time.

"There’s still some concern with consumers about cantaloupes because of the two outbreaks. If you look back at the spinach issue that happened back in 2006, Spinach is  just getting back to the consumption level that it had in 2006 and 2007.

"Any time you have major outbreaks like we have had with some produce, it’s a serious problem making sure consumers have the confidence in the produce of that product."

In the future, the organization hopes to expand its efforts to marketing, education and research. Hall emphasized the importance of a broad effort to maintain safety and accountability across the supply chain.

FDA letter on food safety

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition issued a letter yesterday, underscoring the importance of cantaloupe growers following the food safety provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The letter, written by the center's director Michael Landa, applauded efforts taken by the cantaloupe industry to address food safety issues.

"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," he said.

"We continue to stand ready to provide technical assistance to the industry and to work collaboratively with our state partners, retailers, and others in pursuit of our common goal of enhancing food safety."

The letter discussed specific guidelines and operational plans for this season, while also highlighting the two Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks in 2011 and 2012 that made 400 individuals ill and led to the deaths of 36 people.

"Our investigations in these outbreaks and in follow-up to an Lm [Listeria monocytogenes] positive cantaloupe sample result revealed, in part, multiple findings of insanitary production, handling conditions, and practices in packinghouses," Landa said.

"Due to our observations at cantaloupe packinghouses, we urge the cantaloupe industry to review its current operations in the context of our guidance titled "Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fruits and Vegetables"[5]  and our draft guidance titled “Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Melons".

"We further encourage the industry to seek other available information, beyond that listed here, pertaining to pathogen reduction or elimination on fresh produce, including state and local government requirements or guidance and industry-led efforts to address food safety."

Landa said domestic inspections with a sampling component would take place during the 2013 growing season.

"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 the event of adverse findings, we will take action as needed to protect the public health. 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."

Photo: Fotolia, Thinglass


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