Because of food-borne outbreaks traced back to cantaloupes during the last three years, the FDA has warned the cantaloupe industry that it will be conducting strict inspections of the fruit and packinghouses that distribute it this season.
TIFTON, Ga. -- Cantaloupe packinghouses have been put on notice.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will conduct inspections with hopes of eliminating food-borne outbreaks tracked back to the melons.
The FDA made the stern announcement in a letter to the U.S. cantaloupe industry. The letter was received by the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, as well as similar organizations around the country. In response to food borne outbreaks that originated in packinghouses within the last three years, the FDA intends to sample imported cantaloupes and, according to the letter, "may engage in other surveillance and inspection activities" as circumstances warrant.
"This is as strong as I've ever seen them come out with anything," said GFVGA Food Safety Director Beth Oleson.
Oleson said the association's cantaloupe producers took a proactive approach following the 2012 outbreak linked to Chamberlain Farms in Indiana.
"Many of GFVGA's cantaloupe producers had already begun to implement risk assessments in their farm and packing operations in an effort to minimize potential contamination," Oleson said in a press release. "They have committed to the highest food safety standards in the industry."
One of those growers is Alan Parrish, a Tifton farmer who grows 145 acres of cantaloupes and processes around 150 semi-loads every year. He applauds the FDA.
"We're already doing everything plus a lot more than the FDA has required," said Parrish, a member of the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association. "I don't feel like the problems that we're going to get from cantaloupe are going to be from members of the association or somebody (who is) trying to do it right. The problem's going to be from somebody that's not doing it right. I do think the FDA needs to look at all those."
Members of the ECGA are to undergo a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked food safety audit as well as an unannounced audit at any time, Parrish said.
According to the University of Georgia Farm Gate report, in 2011, the largest cantaloupe-producing county in the state was Tift County with 1,200 acres and $9.5 million in farm gate value.
"Our growers and packers of cantaloupes in Tift County are among the best in the country and they always strive to produce and pack the highest quality and safest cantaloupes possible," said Brian Tankersley, UGA Cooperative Extension coordinator for Tift County. "They are very interested in assuring consumers that the cantaloupes that are produced and packed on their farms have met food safety standards to the highest degree possible.
Tankersley said cantaloupe growers in the region also have a goal of keeping " good retail and consumer confidence" in their cantaloupes.
More than 4,100 acres of cantaloupes were planted statewide in 2011 with $26.8 million in revenue.
Clint Thompson is information coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Tifton.