ATLANTA — Entering its second year, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association plans to help retailers boost sales with a recipe marketing program while it fine tunes its food safety plan for members.

Membership in the association has more than doubled since its founding last year, increasing from eight growers to 19, said Charles Hall, executive director of the LaGrange, Ga.-based group. Grower members control about 4,500 of the estimated 10,000 acres of cantaloupe grown east of the Mississippi River, he said.

Food safety evolving for eastern cantaloupe growers“We hope to double our membership by 2015,” Hall said during the association’s March 3 conference and research update.

The group grew out of industry concerns following deadly outbreaks of listeria and salmonella in 2011 and 2012 that were linked to cantaloupe from Colorado and Indiana, respectively. To be a member, growers must meet food safety criteria established by the association.

Growers must submit to unannounced audits to check their compliance in order to maintain certification through the association. As science discovers additional measures, the group plans to incorporate them into its grower requirements, Hall said.

Association president Bill Brim, co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms, Tifton, Ga., said one goal when the group formed was to encourage retailers to require growers to be certified and thus protect the entire industry. Several retailers sent representatives to the association’s March 3 event.

“I’m here to see what you are doing,” said John Kolenski, senior director of food safety and regulatory compliance for the Kroger Co., Cincinnati. “If you look at pink slime, the meat industry lost that one. I want to know what your plan is from a marketing perspective to deal with the next problem when it happens. We need a plan from you guys.”

After the conference Kolenski said the group’s work is encouraging.

“Being proactive is not a matter of choice. It’s a requirement,” Kolenski said, “and what the ECGA is doing helps.”

The association’s executive director said the group is working on a response strategy for future recalls or outbreaks, as well as a consumer marketing campaign to help boost consumption and retail sales.

Hall said the marketing campaign should begin in late March with quick-response codes linking consumers to a 30-second instructional video on how to avoid cross contamination at home. The QR link will also include recipe ideas for fresh cantaloupe. The association plans to offer QR code point-of-sale materials to retailers for free.

Tony Phillips, food safety director for Frey Farms, Poseyville, Ind., said he supports the association’s marketing efforts and food safety efforts. He said Frey Farms works with several growers to ensure the cantaloupe it ships are safe. The company’s food safety program included 10 packing facility audits and 48 farm audits last year, Phillips said.

Food safety evolving for eastern cantaloupe growers“We spend a significant amount of money on food safety,” Phillips said. “We appreciate the retailers’ support, but we would like them to understand how much we and other growers have invested in food safety and realize that they need to pay more for our melons because of that investment.”

Also during the conference, scientists presented information on cantaloupe-specific food safety research. Also presenting was Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director for the Center for Produce Safety, based at the University of California-Davis.

Hall also provided cantaloupe growers a mini-update on the status of the Food Safety Modernization Act. He said growers should be aware that the animal feed rule could apply to their operations if they send culled fruit to animal operations.

Paul Fleming, chief operating officer for Frey Farms, urged fellow association members to keep an eye on the safe transportation rule because it will apply to fresh produce, also.