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Cantaloupe industry a step ahead of curve

With the new proposed produce rule requiring handlers of produce to create food-safety practices that can be verified and audited, the cantaloupe industry is a step ahead of the game.

Since a year ago, cantaloupe industry stakeholders and the associations that represent them have been meeting on a very frequent basis to establish a cantaloupe guidance document to help handlers work through the best practices as they grow, harvest, pack and ship cantaloupes from both U.S. and foreign points of origin. That document has just undergone its final review and will soon be disseminated to the industry.

Though it was developed prior to the release of the produce rule provisions, Hank Giclas, senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning at Western Growers Association, said that a quick reading of that Food & Drug Administration proposal revealed nothing that would make the cantaloupe guidance document obsolete.

“We may have to tweak it in a place or two to make sure we have covered all the areas that are singled out in the produce rule,” he said, “but a quick read of it leads me to believe that we have covered the important areas of concern.”

Mr. Giclas said that the produce rule proposal does not spell out how existing food-safety programs will interface with it, but he suspects that the various commodities that have launched both formal and informal industrywide food-safety programs will be a step ahead of the game.

He said this should be true for the mandatory food-safety programs currently operating in California and Arizona on leafy greens as well as the mandatory cantaloupe food-safety program that will be in effect in California in 2013.

Mr. Giclas added that cantaloupe grower-shippers throughout the country that establish their own food-safety programs based on the cantaloupe guidance document should also largely be in compliance with the final produce rule.

He said that the cantaloupe guidance document, as well as those that have been developed by other commodity groups, should go a long way toward satisfying the final food-safety requirements in the produce rule.

A 120-day comment period accompanied the release of the produce rule proposals, so it will be at least a half-year before the final rule is published, and then another year or more before companies are required to be in compliance.

In the meantime, Mr. Giclas said it is the cantaloupe industry’s desire that this guidance document be used immediately to help all handlers improve their food-safety procedures.

The document contains two sections — one dealing with growing and field handling of cantaloupes, and the other dealing with best practices within a packingshed or processing facility.

The effort was launched as a result of a deadly Listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupes that arose in the fall of 2011. More than two dozen people died as a result of consuming cantaloupes that originated from a specific operation in Colorado.

In early January 2012, Western Growers Association, the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas co-hosted a summit in San Diego, CA, to discuss food-safety data and information gaps as they related to the production of cantaloupes consumed in the United States. An action plan was devised and the various associations took charge of the process.

WGA has facilitated the development of the guidance document with the hosting of weekly calls to pore over virtually every aspect of cantaloupe production.

Mr. Giclas has taken the lead in writing the document with an assist from the professionals from the other organizations as well as an independent company of food-safety experts called Intertox. WGA and PMA have underwritten the cost to this point.

Mr. Giclas said that United Fresh and FPAA have been involved in the development of the document to a lesser extent, but they will be intimately involved in the distribution of this information to cantaloupe producers in all regions of the United States as well as to the community of people who import cantaloupes into this country.

At the same time that WGA was involved in writing this document, it was also working with the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board to expand the state’s research marketing order to include a food-safety component.

Mr. Giclas said that regulations were written and informational audits were conducted this past autumn to iron out any wrinkles in the program.

In 2013, all cantaloupes grown in California will come under the purview of this mandatory food-safety program, which has been patterned after the very successful California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.