Friday, January 6, 2012

Regrouping after Listeria on Cantaloupe

One bad cantaloupe [farmer] can spoil the whole bunch….in the LA Times article (below), we see another example of negative impact on an entire industry caused by a producer using less-than-good practices. Interestingly stated, “…California shipped more cantaloupe in a day than Colorado[where the incident occurred] in their whole season. Millions and millions of cantaloupe, healthy and fine."  Now these California producers are not planting as much while trying to spin the story as best they can.

In this digital news age where any tragedy is reported instantly, and then pounded on for days, while often providing little or no information to the specifics, we can’t expect consumers to act much differently.  Consumers want to avoid risk, and if that means forgoing an entire commodity item, then so be it.  There are other, perceivably safer alternatives in the marketplace for consumers to choose.

The point that is hard to understand is how do producers or processors not choose to follow best practices.  Do they know what best practices are for their industry?  Do they truly understand the risks associated with their product and process?

Because of this gap in what is done and what should be done by a some less-than-good companies, and this is probably a small group, government steps in with regulations such as those to be enacted by the new Food Safety Modernization Act legislation.  And still, many companies and industry groups fight against new legislation or having to comply with the proposed regulation.  Granted, some components of the regulation may be initially overkill or not well thought out, but this is where the comment period provides a chance for those with issues to voice their objections.  And the better industry groups work with the agencies to iron out the rough spots within the proposed regulation.

In the news, we hear of companies who decide to get out of the business rather than comply with new regulations.  Some see this loss of a local employer at tragic.  Not me.  If companies are not willing to keep up, if they are not willing to continually update themselves and their employees on the science and technology associated with making safe food, then it is best for the industry that they leave it to those who are.  Certainly, there is a cost to continual improvement, but resources are available through industry groups, government agencies, and academic institutions (including Extension).  It’s not “get big or get out”, it’s “get smart or get out”.

California cantaloupe farms regroup after listeria outbreak

California's Central Valley is 1,300 miles from the Colorado farm linked to a deadly listeria outbreak. But that hasn't registered with the public. Cantaloupe growers hope to change that.
By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
January 5, 2012, 3:53 p.m,0,6658258.story?page=1&utm_medium=feed&track=rss&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20latimes%2Fbusiness%20%28L.A.%20Times%20-%20Business%29&utm_source=feedburner

 Reporting from Mendota, Calif.—

A tragedy 1,300 miles away changed a way of life in this Central California farm town that proudly calls itself the Cantaloupe Center of the World.

This would normally be the season when farmers plan the summer crop that in good years is valued at nearly $200 million, according to the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.

Instead, they are cutting acreage devoted to the fruit and scrambling for ways to reassure a nervous public that cantaloupes are safe to eat.

In the fall, the deadliest food-borne illness outbreak in the United States since 1924 was traced to listeria-tainted cantaloupe in Colorado. Thirty people died and at least 146 became ill, with cases spread over 28 states.

No matter that the tainted cantaloupes were all traced to one farm operation in that state. Consumer demand plummeted and in California's Central Valley, which produces 90% of summer-harvested cantaloupes in the U.S., the 2011 harvest abruptly halted. Hundreds of workers were let go. Farmers left fruit in the fields.

"The tragedy still keeps me awake at night," said Stephen Patricio, chairman of the advisory board. "People shouldn't have to fear their food. But the irony is that California shipped more cantaloupe in a day than Colorado in their whole season. Millions and millions of cantaloupe, healthy and fine."

The stigma has only partially lifted since the fall. Cantaloupe consumption is down nationwide 53% from before the outbreak, according to consulting firm Perishables Group.

"During the crisis I was watching the local news, and right here in the valley they were telling people that if they felt uneasy about their cantaloupe to throw them out," said Jim Malanca, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Westside Produce, a farming and packing operation that has been producing cantaloupes since the 1940s.

"You're not going to find one Colorado cantaloupe in California or Arizona, but that's the perception we're fighting. It's overwhelming."

If perceptions don't turn around quickly, Patricio estimated, cantaloupe acreage in the Central Valley this coming season could be down as much as 30%.

A nationwide marketing campaign aimed at calming fears and promoting the product is probably out of the reach of the cantaloupe industry, which is far from being one of the giants of agriculture.

In 2010, for example, the top vegetable or fruit commodity in California was grapes, with a crop worth about $3.2 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That year, the state's cantaloupe crop was worth about $134 million.

It had been on a downward trajectory even before the outbreak in the fall. In 2010, cantaloupe was planted in 40,500 acres in the state, according to the USDA. In 2001, the crop took up 55,500 acres and was valued at $252 million. The shrinking acreage was due, at least in part, to the increased planting of crops that didn't need as much water.

"Look, this isn't an industry with a lot of money to do a national print and radio campaign," Malanca said. "There are no corporate growers of cantaloupe. It's going to come down to individual owners figuring out how to tell their customers their cantaloupes are safe."

This month the Center for Produce Safety will host a closed-door symposium in San Diego for cantaloupe growers, shippers, agricultural researchers, government regulators and others to create guidelines for best growing practices.

"The main question will be, 'What are the gaps in our knowledge?'" said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the UC Davis-based center. "Do we need to do research or is it a matter of the cantaloupe industry implementing and enforcing best practices?"

Patricio said that pressure will be on buyers to not do business with any growers who do not abide by the guidelines that come out of the meeting.

Linda Welter Cohen is chief executive of Caliber Group, a marketing and public relations firm that represented a large tomato company after a 2008 salmonella outbreak in that crop. She said the guidelines-setting meeting is a step in the right direction.

"With produce, the best PR is the product itself," she said. "It all starts with 'Is it fresh and flavorful and can the consumer depend on it being safe?'"

Continues (click link above).

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