When Georgia cantaloupe growers start packing melons for consumers in a few weeks, they could get an unexpected visit from federal inspectors. In a recent letter, the Food and Drug Administration put growers and industry groups on notice to expect them.
The FDA’s focus on cantaloupe safety comes after two outbreaks of listeria and salmonella contamination in the last few years made hundreds of people ill and killed dozens.
A new coalition of cantaloupe producers from Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina is one of the industry’s responses to those outbreaks. The group’s leader said it also reflects a desire among producers to improve safety.
“They felt a need to identify how they could improve and enhance the confidence of the consumer in the cantaloupe product,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the ECGA. “We were seeing a trend of consumption going down somewhat.”
Hall said members of the group agree to undergo an initial food-safety audit -- called a Global Food Safety Initiative audit -- and then a later unannounced one. Group members also have developed other safety-improvement measures, including new guidelines for transporting melons from the field and regular tests of water used in irrigation and packing.
Still, Hall said the FDA’s actions are unusual.
“They have had some field testing and field reviews over the last couple of years,” he said, “but specific to one commodity, I’m not familiar with them doing [anything] quite as extensive as what they’re identifying now.”
In 2011, Georgia grew about 4,100 acres of cantaloupes worth $27 million, according to the University of Georgia Farm Gate Report.