REDDING, Calif. — At a farmers’ market here last weekend, grower Tom Reemts was selling his last cantaloupe by mid-morning.
“I had a lot of them this morning, but they’re popular,” said Reemts, owner of Tom’s Produce. “Yesterday I sold a ton of them.”
Demand for fresh cantaloupe from the Golden State is something the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board is trying to rebuild in the wake of a listeria contamination of melons from Colorado in 2011 that left 33 dead.
The advisory board this summer is doing a consumer sweepstakes promotion to call attention to a new mandatory food safety program the California cantaloupe industry established last year.
The program includes an education effort partly funded through a USDA block grant to the board to help rebuild confidence in cantaloupe in the aftermath of the listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.
In the board’s Summertime Yum and Cantaloupe Fun promotion, consumers are using social media to explain how and why they are fans of fresh cantaloupe and can enter to win a $100 gift certificate to a local grocery story, a news release explains.
“We’re just trying to find ways to make things fun and develop some interest in cantaloupes,” board manager John Gilstrap told the Capital Press. “This foray into social media is fairly new for us. We’re trying things out to raise some interest.”
Earlier this year, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to charges related to selling tainted fruit that sickened scores of people in 28 states and caused 147 to be hospitalized, according to The Associated Press. The farmers were sentenced to five years of probation and six months of home detention and ordered to each pay $150,000 in restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.
The legal ripple effect from the incident is still being felt throughout the industry. While three people submitted restitution claims totaling $13,000 from the brothers in April, Walmart announced in May it had agreed to settle claims from many of the families of the victims, the AP reported.
In California and throughout the West, the outbreak three years ago brought cantaloupe sales to an abrupt halt. Fortunately for California growers, the outbreak occurred near the end of their shipping season, Gilstrap said.
“If it had happened in the middle of the season, it would have been just disastrous,” he said. “It was disastrous for the people who were affected by it … but as far as our industry goes, it hurt but it would have been worse if it had happened earlier.”
As it was, California led the nation in cantaloupe production by acreage, volume and value last year, producing 12.7 million hundredweight to second-place Arizona’s 3.6 million, according to the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center.
However, prices have been on a downward slide in the past few decades, the center reported. The season-average price for cantaloupe peaked at $25.17 per hundredweight in 1980 and was $17.60 per hundredweight in 2013, a $2 drop from 2012, center researchers noted in a melon profile in April.
The food safety program that California initiated last year was the first in which an industry invited government auditors to inspect all aspects of operations, the advisory board noted. Auditors go through a checklist with 156 items, and handlers are required to comply fully with a set of science-based practices, according to the board’s release.
Last year, the state’s 53 audits examined 8,268 checkpoints in fields, packing facilities and coolers and found that 4.3 percent of practices were out of compliance, the board reported. These had to be corrected and verified again for a handler to be certified as safe.
Producers hope the audit system prevents any disease outbreaks from California and boosts consumers’ confidence in melons from the Golden State.
“The idea is that if something comes up like that again, it won’t be a California cantaloupe, and people can still have confidence in buying a California product,” Gilstrap said.
California Cantaloupe Advisory Board: http://www.californiacantaloupes.com