(June 10) IRVINE, Calif. — Industry leaders are hopeful that a partnership of government and industry can eliminate contamination outbreaks during future imported cantaloupe seasons and prevent the resulting bad publicity for the cantaloupe business.

In late May, officials from several state agriculture departments and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration met with cantaloupe growers, as well as food safety experts and representatives of the Western Growers Association, Newport Beach, and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.

The meeting was aimed at figuring out how to deal with problems resulting from contaminants traced back to imported cantaloupe.

PARTICIPANTS HOPEFUL

Participants said the meeting was preliminary but encouraging and that it set the stage for more in-depth cooperation. Another meeting could be held in July.

As recently as May, about 50 people became ill because of contaminants traced back to Mexican cantaloupe. Domestic growers have complained that they suffer when imported products are associated with outbreaks because consumers don’t differentiate between domestic and imported cantaloupes. In addition, U.S. growers have complained that outbreaks associated with imported products have come at the end of the import season, thereby leaving domestic growers to feel the brunt of any consumer fears.

“This is the third year in a row that a pathogen outbreak has been traced back to Mexico, and the goal is to prevent that from happening for a fourth year,” said Matt McInerney, executive vice president of WGA and a participant in the meeting. “A cantaloupe action plan is needed to eliminate recurring outbreaks. Stakeholders, both domestic and Mexican, are encouraged to come to the table.”

The meeting in Phoenix was led by Sheldon Jones, Arizona’s secretary of agriculture. More than 30 people either attended in person or participated via conference call, including Bill Lyons of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and grower-shippers from both sides of the border.

It’s important that everyone involved with cantaloupe address the problem effectively, said Hank Giclas, WGA’s vice president of science and technical affairs and a participant in the meeting.

“We’re trying to do this in a controlled, calculating way,” Giclas said. “We’re really sensitive to media coverage. All it takes is one anecdotal mention of cantaloupe and contamination in the same article for consumers to move away.”

CONSUMER PANEL

That fact was made evident in a consumer panel a few days later and several hundred miles away. As part of an educational session at the Produce Marketing Association Retail Solutions Conference in Monterey, Calif., researcher Peter Hart queried consumers from California’s Central Coast about their attitudes toward produce.

When Hart asked the panel how they would react to news of contaminants on cantaloupe, they said they would buy other products.

The consumers said they would avoid cantaloupes from anywhere from a couple weeks to as long as an entire season, however long it took for them to become convinced that the product was safe to eat.

“For me to buy the product again, my grocer would have to provide me good information,” one panelist said.