(Nov. 27) Getting beyond the headlines and hard feelings, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association is planning a meeting that will attempt to bring together the North American cantaloupe industry at United’s Feb. 21-24 convention and exposition in Long Beach, Calif.

The melon industry has quite a bit to work through. Three multistate outbreaks of salmonella serotype poona infections associated with eating cantaloupe imported from Mexico occurred in the spring of 2000, 2001 and 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC recently explored the episodes in the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review” of Nov. 22, available online at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/.

Prompted by those disease incidents, the Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 28 issued an import alert for Mexican cantaloupe, effectively banning all Mexican imports until the FDA reviews food safety standards for each Mexican shipper. After a shipper’s food safety standards are approved by the FDA, it will be allowed to re-enter the U.S. market.

However, the process bogged down, and FDA officials had approved no Mexican shipper through Nov. 26.

HASTE ALLEGED

While Mexican grower/shippers attempt to be removed from the import ban, a complaint filed at the World Trade Organization by Mexico alleges that the U.S. acted in haste to impose the ban in the first place.

Adding more unwanted headlines in the consumer press about cantaloupes, a grand jury for the U.S. District Court in Arizona on Nov. 12 brought multiple charges against prominent Nogales, Ariz., importer Bob Shipley of Shipley Sales Service and his son, Lee Shipley Kunze, who operated a growing operation in Mexico. The government alleges the two impeded investigations of the FDA and the U.S. Customs Service, submitted false invoices and imported adulterated cantaloupes in 2001.

“It is unfortunate that all of this occurred because it still continues the association with salmonella and cantaloupe,” said Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va. She said the industry events of the past might negatively affect the whole category.

“These are past events, not what is currently playing out,” she said.

Garren said United hopes to bring together import players, domestic growers, and even agriculture and health officials from the U.S. and Mexico at the Long Beach meeting.

“It is a strategy we are working on, to have common codes of practices, so we make sure the consumer confidence is still there,” she said.

There is no date and time set for the meeting yet, but Garren said she was hopeful the meeting could help cantaloupe suppliers move beyond the headlines.

“We are hoping to move forward,” she said.

IMPORT ALERT

Meanwhile, Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, said Nov. 25 that he was hopeful for quick action from the FDA to approve importers.

However, he said that it was uncertain whether the FDA would devote the manpower necessary to review applications from Mexican grower/shippers to be removed from the import ban, since 50 to 60 growers are submitting applications that can range up to 300 pages each.

“At this point, nobody has been released (by the FDA). Some people are past the peak of harvest season,” he said.

Frankel said there is some research being done by lawyers to see if a class-action lawsuit is possible against the FDA

He said the public relations hit that Mexican importers have endured could turn around. “Maybe we’re starting to move it the other direction, to understand what the facts are,” he said. However, he said he was disappointed that the recent CDC report did not reveal how the FDA traced the Mexican cantaloupes as the cause of the illness.

“Everything has been speculation to this point. We are hopefully going to start dealing with the facts,” he said.