The cantaloupe industry in California, which leads the nation, is seeking to reassure the government and consumers in the wake of a deadly listeria outbreak traced to Colorado.

“It never should have happened,” said Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, referring to the outbreak this summer that resulted in 29 deaths and 139 people infected in multiple states.

In a telephone interview, Patricio expressed “condolences to families of the injured and dead,” termed the multimillion dollar impact on the industry “devastating” and elaborated on a letter the board sent to the Food and Drug Administration after it issued an open letter of guidance on food safety.

The letter signed by Patricio outlines a three-pronged approach to ensuring food safety precautions are in place in the wake of the outbreak that Patricio said has likely cost the industry more than $50 million nationwide.

Steps include:

  • A pledge from the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and the California Melon Research Board that $200,000 in research funding will be provided to the Center for Produce Safety over the next four years to find new and better ways to improve the safety of melons. The two industry groups are encouraging participation of other cantaloupe producing regions in the project.
  • An immediate review of the industry’s internal practices “so we can further assure consumers that our cantaloupes are safe.”
  • The California and Arizona cantaloupe industries working with the Center for Produce Safety along with food safety experts at the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers and United Fresh Produce Association to conduct “a complete review of existing and available research on food safety practices” worldwide. “This effort will become the basis of updated regional guidance for melon food safety which will be submitted to FDA as soon as possible,” the letter said.

The FDA letter was aimed at re-enforcing the importance of following food safety guidance based on what Patricio said was “more than 25 years of well-established research for washing and sanitizing packing equipment for cantaloupe production.”

It was sent to firms that grow, harvest, sort, pack, process or ship fresh cantaloupe.

Patricio’s letter points out California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of food borne illness.

Investigators traced the outbreak to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., and the Center for Disease Control recommended that consumer not eat whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe from Jensen. The FDA also issued a statement that “Cantaloupes that are known NOT to have come from Jensen Farms are safe to eat.”