Greg Johnson, Editor
Greg Johnson, Editor

Now that the produce industry has had a little time to reflect on the deadly listeria outbreak from Colorado cantaloupes, one can’t help but compare it to the spinach E.coli outbreak of five years ago.

There are as many similarities as differences, and the stakes may be higher this time.

The similarties are tragic: illnesses followed by deaths; a government investigation producing the origin weeks or months later; media hysteria; consumer avoidance of a popular produce item; a rebuilding process.

But here are two significant differences:

  • First, the guilty party isn’t involved in the reclamation of the commodity this time. All indications are that Holly, Colo.-based Jensen Farms, where the outbreak occurred, is no longer in business, and that’s before the lawsuits.

That puts the burden on companies and regions that had nothing to do with the outbreak.

Whereas, in 2006, the E.coli outbreak was determined to have been packed by Natural Selection/Earthbound Farm, a financially strong company that weathered the storm and remains a leading leafy green company today.

  • And second, the food safety push after the spinach outbreak was initially led by a buyer group.

Buyers are involved with cantaloupes this time, but it’s largely a supply-side led group addressing food safety issues.

January meeting

All eyes are on a Jan. 11 meeting in San Diego. This invitation-only event was organized by the Center for Produce Safety.

CPS executive director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli told The Packer about a month ago that the meeting brings together “the cantaloupe supply chain with the science and regulatory communities to look at food safety and ask, ‘Is there more to be done? Are there gaps in knowledge?’”

Of course, The Packer took offense when we found out we were not invited along with all media, but organizers and attendees have told us they’ll grant interviews after it’s over.

The idea is that key players in the cantaloupe industry would not have attended had the public and/or media been in the meeting because an open discussion would have been impossible.

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether the cantaloupe industry is wise to hold a closed meeting, which invites speculation that there’s something to hide.

However, almost exactly five years ago, the newly formed California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement held a hearing in Monterey on Jan. 12, 2007, in which more than 300 attended (including The Packer) and 32 people testified.

The consensus was that it was not very useful, and the meeting had little bearing on the eventual certification of the marketing agreement.

Indeed, much behind-the-scenes work occurred, including convincing notable holdout Chiquita-owned Fresh Express to sign on.

If the cantaloupe industry succeeds in bringing together around 100 of the commodity’s most influential players in mid-January, it’s an impressive feat, so something substantial must come out of it.

What’s at stake

Not to downplay 30 deaths and 150 illnesses from tainted cantaloupe, but the fruit now teeters on the edge of relevance.

The Perishables Group data from autumn showed that the outbreak significantly damaged cantaloupe in the eyes of the consumer, something many people in the San Diego meeting will be able to testify to based on their bottom lines.

In October, the cantaloupe category’s retail sales and volume were down more than 50% from a year ago, and anecdotal evidence from retailers shows it hasn’t done any better as 2011 came to a close.

On a personal note, I spent a lot of time explaining to friends and family over the holidays that cantaloupe is perfectly safe to eat now, that the outbreak has been over for months, and I would still feed it to my kids.

But one family member of mine who works in the health field got to know one of the seniors who died from listeria. They say they’ll never eat cantaloupe again because it’s not worth the risk.

I suspect there are millions of consumers who may decide (or already have) that’s an appropriate mindset as they push their cart through the produce department.

For all the responsible and successful steps leafy green and spinach grower-shippers took in response to the summer 2006 outbreak, spinach consumpion levels are still down from before the outbreak.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, per-person spinach consumption dropped from its high of 2.3 pounds in 2005 to 1.6 pounds in 2007, and back up to 1.9 pounds through 2009, the last year data is available.

While CPS is the organizer of the San Diego meeting, it would be unfair to put the success of the event or resulting actions from the cantaloupe industry on it.

CPS was designed to be an industry food safety resource group, not advocacy.

It’s up to the leaders in the cantaloupe industry to propose something bold in 2012 to convince consumers and buyers their product is safe and then follow through.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.