After two seasons in a row of disease outbreaks associated with cantaloupe—the Jensen Farms (Colorado) listeria outbreak of 2011 and the Chamberlain Farms (Indiana) salmonella outbreak of 2012—growers on the East Coast of the U.S. have come together to form their own association aimed at improving food safety practices and restoring consumer confidence.
California cantaloupe growers had been operating under a research marketing order for a number of years, and after the Jensen Farms outbreak, the marketing order was expanded to include a safety component. Patterned after a similar, successful leafy greens marketing agreement, the marketing order now covers all cantaloupes grown in California.
The Eastern growers considered a similar marketing order, but decided that a trade association would be the quickest way to put a program together, says Charles Hall, interim executive director of the new Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA). “Some of our members had been a part of working on the new national guidance document on best practices for cantaloupes [released at the end of February], and we used that to identify the items of importance for Eastern growers as we created the association.”
Members of the ECGA will agree to abide by a three-component member certification process:
1. Passing a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked audit;
2. Passing a “rider” of seven additional items deemed important by the Association, including water testing guidelines, field sanitation guidelines, and guidelines with regard to the use of non-composted manure;
3. Contracting with an audit firm for an unannounced audit.
“Obviously, they can’t be audited until the growing season starts, but before they can be approved as members, they must contract with a firm and give us the company’s name and we’ll contact them to confirm it,” says Hall. “If they don’t pass the unannounced audit, they’ll come off the membership list.”
The member approval process is just getting underway. According to Hall, 10 growers have submitted their applications, but by the time the season starts, he expects that ECGA will have between 40 and 50 members. “Buyers, retailers and food service folks can check the membership list to make sure that they’re working with a grower that has committed to best food safety practices,” he says.