What is in this article?:
- California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of food-borne illness.
- The listeria outbreak, the first ever for melons, was 'a tragic localized event.'
- The cantaloupe listeria outbreak has likely cost the industry more than $50 million nationwide.
But the outbreak had a nationwide chilling effect on consumers. Patricio, president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, said public contamination fears “shut down our season three weeks early, meaning the loss of three weeks during a 15-week shipping season.”
That meant workers, for example, lost 20 percent of their normal income in places like the San Joaquin Valley. And Patricio said the loss was still greater in parts of Arizona and Imperial where “their season was ramping up as ours was ramping down. They were damaged two or three times what we suffered.”
Patricio said it was impossible to quantify exactly what losses would total.
He said the listeria outbreak, the first ever for melons, was “a tragic localized event,” though its effects were felt in multiple states in part because Jensen allied itself with Texas-based distributor Frontera Produce, which gave it a greater reach than it would otherwise might have had.
Patricio said the FDA and officials with the Colorado Department of Health Services “probably saved numerous lives and prevented illnesses” by responding quickly to a report of a person sickened by a cantaloupe with a Rocky Ford label.
Some of the cantaloupe was tested and listeria was detected, including strains that had sickened others.
“The smoking gun was found,” Patricio said.
The contamination was traced to a washing system that had just been installed at Jensen. Lack of forced air cooling to remove field heat also may have played a role.
“This was basic Packing Shed 101,” Patricio said. “It wasn’t new, it wasn’t whiz bang.”
California each year ships about 30 million 40-pound cartons. Cantaloupes are a $134 million California crop grown on about 40,000 acres. The state produces 58 percent of the nation’s crop. Arizona has 28 percent, Florida 7 percent, Georgia 4 percent and Colorado about 2 percent.
Patricio said it’s unknown how quickly the melon industry can allay concerns.
“It took five years after the spinach crisis for it to return to earlier consumption levels,” he said. “Alar on apples took three years; Temek on watermelons [in the 1980s] took less than a year. There will be a [continuing] impact. It depends on how the industry is able to respond to consumer concerns.”
Patricio said that in 1999 the California industry adopted guidance that was “at a more robust level” than the federal government’s recommendations on food safety.
He said that on Jan. 11 there will be a symposium in San Diego of “industry stakeholders” to help set an agenda of science-based research related to food safety.