The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s release of its Environmental Assessment confirms that the outbreak of listeria associated with Colorado-grown cantaloupes is the result of one grower-shipper not following well-established food safety practices that have been in place throughout the melon industry for many years. In a media briefing, FDA officials stated that “…these factors are not indicative of practices found throughout the cantaloupe industry.”
This FDA report shows that recommended methods and procedures to ensure safety during the washing and packing of cantaloupes in a packinghouse environment were not followed. These food safety procedures are based on 25 years of well-established research. This situation underscores that it is tremendously important that all food producers — no matter where they are or how large or small their farm or packing operation — must be aware of and adhere to proven food safety practices to protect public health and prevent another tragedy from occurring.
The California cantaloupe industry wants to assure consumers that food safety has been and continues to be our first priority. While fresh cantaloupe is produced in many areas of the world, the majority comes from California with over 30 million boxes of cantaloupe grown in the San Joaquin Valley and desert growing regions. Consumers may be reassured to know that California-grown cantaloupes have never been associated with an outbreak of foodborne illness. More importantly, we are continuing work to ensure that this record stands.
Our food safety commitment began 20 years ago with science based research which helped establish standards for safely growing and packing California cantaloupe. Over those years, we engaged scientists and experts in food safety to examine our fields and packing facilities as well as conduct extensive testing and sampling of the growing environment, packing facilities and of the product itself to determine the level of contamination risk.
What we learned is that the dry, arid conditions where cantaloupes are grown in California are not friendly to the growth of pathogens. But we didn’t stop there. We took action to make our production methods even safer.
Our research, along with other research conducted by other scientists, shows that wet or humid growing conditions as well as the use of water in the packing process require additional risk management practices. As a result, the California cantaloupe industry implemented different growing methods designed to keep water away from product growing in the field. We also developed alternative methods for packing and cooling our product to reduce and eliminate the use of water. In several cases, what were once believed to be state-of-the art systems for packing and cooling cantaloupes were removed and replaced because of the research findings.
Condolences to victims
With this recent Colorado outbreak, the California cantaloupe industry is committed to working even harder to improve the safety of our product throughout all growing regions both domestically and internationally. In light of the FDA findings, it is clear that more outreach can be done to further educate and remind farmers and food safety consultants about the importance of diligently following proper food safety practices. California producers are also committed to funding even more research wherever it is needed to improve safety as well as share our California industry-funded research results with anyone who is interested.
Our farmers, packers and shippers want to extend our sympathies to all the victims of this outbreak and their families. These families will be in our thoughts constantly as we take steps to ensure this never happens again. For its part, the California cantaloupe industry is committed to continuing to put safety as its top priority. We plan to work with the worldwide cantaloupe industry to improve the safety of all cantaloupes. The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board and the California Melon Research Board have already committed an additional $200,000 in research funding to the Center for Produce Safety over the next four years specifically earmarked to find new and better ways to improve the safety of melons. The California cantaloupe industry has also begun an immediate review of our internal practices so we can further assure our customers that our cantaloupes are safe.