(Feb. 19, 10:52 p.m.) CHARLESTON, S.C. – By taking a proactive approach, National Watermelon Association members hope to avoid the pitfalls suffered by tomato grower-shippers during the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of Summer 2008.

While safety experts agree watermelons, because of their thick rinds, pose less chance of being victimized by a food safety outbreak or of being falsely accused as an outbreak culprit as tomatoes were in 2008, association executive director Bob Morrissey said Feb. 19 at the association’s annual convention it’s essential those in the watermelon industry prepare as if they’ll be next. Despite such an event's unlikelihood, Morrissey impressed upon the group there’s no time to waste.

“The number of produce outbreaks, mainly in fresh fruit and vegetables, has escalated to incredible numbers, especially of recent years. It was our (initial) opinion … that the earliest the federal government would enact any kind of federal food safety legislation would be probably the end of this year. Well, with the peanut issue from the peanut corporation in Blakely, Ga., with the salmonella the last two years and upcoming federal indictments and all that kind of stuff, we are anticipating that there will be bills in the House and Senate introduced no later than 3-4 business days from now and it’s become high-profile," Morrissey said.

National watermelon officials are working closely in the legislative process, Morrissey said, but, taking a solemn tone during his introduction of the association’s three-hour food safety presentation Feb. 19 at the Francis Marion Hotel, he repeatedly told watermelon growers their due diligence is not enough.

He said they must not only handle and process watermelons carefully and according to strict guidelines, but also must be certain to document everything. He repeatedly warned the audience that any procedures to ensure food safety will be worth nothing if safety questions are raised by consumers or by government officials after the fact and watermelon companies cannot provide adequate documentation.

Food safety is nothing new to the watermelon industry as Morrissey noted 2009 marks the third straight year safety has been a focal point at the annual convention. However, he noted the stakes are growing ever higher and there is little-to-no margin for error.

Speakers also advised convention-goers on traceability and sanitation issues as well as on a proactive crisis management program initiated by the watermelon promotion board.

That program focuses on training growers on how to deal with food safety questions from mainstream media and how to ensure national watermelon officials take a lead role in the process of disseminating official information to the press.

Also highlighting the NWA learning seminars on Feb. 19, those in the watermelon industry heard scientist Dr. Wayne Fish and other speakers speculate to the potential revenues and costs watermelon growers could have if they choose to leverage "value-added" marketing opportunities from the lycopene in watermelons and the fact ethanol can be derived from them.

For more details on the seminars, please see The Packer’s March 2 print edition.