Growers' Insights: Safe slice

Published in FSD Update

Cantaloupe farmers use cutting-edge precautions for outbreak prevention.

Food safety is a grave concern for cantaloupe farmers. In 2011, 33 people died from consuming cantaloupe carrying listeria, a deadly pathogen. That was followed by an outbreak of salmonella-tainted cantaloupe in 2012 that claimed the lives of two people and affected at least 78 others. Since then, American cantaloupe farmers have invested considerable time, money and resources looking for better methods to ensure the safety of their product.

“Yes, we think that food safety issues probably have affected sales,” says Matt Solana, vice president of operations at Jackson Family Farms, in Autryville, N.C., where 300 acres are dedicated to growing cantaloupes. “Jackson’s is a third-generation family farm, and we consume the same fruits and vegetables as our customers. We take every possible safety precaution.” Heather Register, a food safety coordinator for Jackson, says cantaloupe sales at the chain stores the farm supplies were down 15% to 20% between 2012 and 2013.

Last year, the farm completely revised its cantaloupe packing facility, working in tandem with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and other agencies to adopt cutting-edge food safety practices. These practices include participating in unannounced audits to conduct environmental pathogen testing of the farm’s packing shed and testing for purity of water sources, ensuring that the farm meets the GlobalGAP (Good Agricultural Practices, an internationally recognized set of farm standards) on cantaloupes.

“We no longer use any permeable (carpet/wood) [surfaces] that would contact our produce,” Register says. “The entire packing line was reworked using stainless steel, which is easily cleaned and sanitized. The cleaning, testing and sanitizing takes six to eight hours per day depending on the run time.”

Jackson Family Farms isn’t the only grower to feel the food safety pinch. “The most important trend in cantaloupe production today is food safety,” says Norm Conde, project manager for Melon Acres, a multigenerational farm near Oaktown, Ind. Owner-operator Mike Horrall and his daughter, Autumn Freeman, the farm’s food safety manager, created the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA), whose members are required to maintain food safety standards that are more stringent than those required by the Food and Drug Administration and similar organizations.

“The packing line is washed, tested for ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to confirm the effectiveness of that washing and then sanitized at least three times per day,” Conde says. The presence of ATP indicates actively growing microorganisms. Farmers test for ATP with a luminometer. “Wagons and buses used to carry fruit are also washed, tested, rewashed, if necessary, and sanitized after each use to prevent any potential of cross-contamination,” Conde adds.

These increased food safety measures have affected the farmers’ bottom lines. “To put pricing in perspective, we have spent over $1.5 million on food safety since 2005, while the average price of a bin of 110-count cantaloupes still averages $125 a bin,” Solana says.

Weather woes

Aside from food safety, the biggest challenge most cantaloupe growers face is weather. “In a dry season where the water is controlled by drip irrigation, we have our best yields and highest sugar levels,” Solana says.

Conde indicates that cantaloupes can suffer from a variety of fungal infections, wilt, mildew and insects and are sprayed accordingly. “Planting begins in mid-April, harvest usually begins after July 4th and continues through the next four to five weeks to mid-August,” Conde says. Melon Acres grows Eastern shippers, namely Aphrodite, Athena and Ariel. These varieties are larger, often sweeter and more aromatic than varieties grown in the west (Western shippers). Because of demand, Eastern shippers also tend to bring a higher price.

Medium-sized cantaloupes are shipped from Melon Acres in two-foot-tall cardboard bins, which contain 90 to 100 cantaloupes per bin and generally sell for about $115 to $140 per bin. Smaller cantaloupes number between 120 and 150 per bin, while jumbo-sized number between 70 and 80 per bin.

“Pricing of 110-count melons has ranged from $115 to $150 per bin for the past three to five years,” Solana says.