Cantaloupe safety in the U.S. appears to be improving, according to results of a summer 2013 survey by FDA field officers that were recently reported by Michigan State University.
“By and large, samples of melons last summer came back free of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. The overwhelming majority of cantaloupes sampled last year would not make anyone sick on their own,” said the Michigan State University Extension report. “Most growers are practicing good agricultural practices, even if they aren’t certified as such or keeping records documenting food safety practices.”
But the survey, which visited most melon packing houses in the U.S., did find pathogen contamination in some samples, and these findings highlighted some suboptimal practices that could lead to outbreaks of illness.
- When using surface-water irrigation, growers should be cautious about prior uses of such water that could pose a contamination risk. Even water that flows past a livestock pasture could compromise produce irrigated with that water.
- Post-harvest surfaces should be treated with a sanitizer or be made of single-use materials.
- Transport vehicles, such as truck beds, should be carefully sanitized. Multi-use vehicles (such as those used to transport livestock as well as produce) would ideally be power-washed and sanitized after livestock use.
Steve Patricio, president and CEO of California’s Westside Produce, says he was pleased with the findings, although he had been surprised last year when FDA surveyors arrived in California. “They said they were only going to review shed packing, and there is no shed packing in California, so they did an analysis of our field packing,” he says. “It’s good to see that practices appear to be getting better; hopefully everyone has had a wake-up call [after the Jensen Farms outbreak] for what has to be done to improve cantaloupe safety.”
Patricio says that the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, which has a mandatory food safety program for all cantaloupe growers in the state that is entering its second year, is “going very well.” (California grows 75 percent of cantaloupes consumed in the U.S.) Under the program, all state cantaloupe farmers and shippers must be in 100 percent compliant with a 156-point food safety audit checklist, administered by USDA-trained auditors.
The Advisory Board is also working toward certification by the Global Food Safety Initiative and Patricio says that it is on target to achieve that status before the 2015 growing season begins.