It’s been a rough couple of years for the cantaloupe. But growers in the eastern U.S. have formed a new organization, aiming to regain consumer and retail confidence in their tasty product.
The Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA) will host a kickoff meeting on Monday to provide an overview of the food safety standards that its members will be required to follow, including submitting to unannounced audits of their operations during the production and harvest season.
“We’ve seen a drop in cantaloupe consumption and sales,” said Charles Hall, CEO of Association Services Group and ECGA’s executive director. “Growers have come together to try to identify ways that they can ensure consumers, retailers, and shippers that the product is safe and is one that has been grown under the highest food safety standards.”
The Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis—a collaborative research group comprising industry, government, academic, and scientific experts focused on enhancing food safety—is coordinating efforts to develop national food-safety guidelines for cantaloupes [PDF]. ECGA will encourage its members to adhere to that guidance once finalized but didn’t want to wait for that to happen before providing its own standards, Hall said.
“We spent last fall with the technical working group reviewing the guidance document,” he said. “We identified places where our growers wanted to do something that would be over and above what the national guidance was.”
In addition to scheduled third-party audits that all producers are required to undergo during harvest season, ECGA-certified members will be subject to unannounced audits, “a practice that is not normal for the produce industry,” Hall said.
“They won’t do the full-blown three-day audit,” he said. “But they will check things like the water contamination levels or the cleanliness of the packing facility during the harvest and packaging season.”
Founding members of ECGA were already members of organizations like the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, but they saw the need for an organization more specifically focused on the needs of cantaloupe growers, said Hall.
“With cantaloupes having gone through two years of food safety issues, the growers felt like they needed to do something,” he said. “The produce industry is undergoing some very stringent food safety changes. Congress passed, and we supported, the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, and the FDA just released their regulations under that act. I think we’re all looking at food safety as a very critical need within the production area right now.
“Mainly we’re just trying to educate people as to what this group is doing,” Hall said. “It’s ensuring the retailer and consumer that growers and the packers are following the procedures that they said they were and that this is a safe product.”