Cantaloupe packers may be subjected to more inspections by U.S. regulators this growing season following listeria and salmonella outbreaks in the past two years linked to unsanitary processing of the melons.
“We intend to initiate inspections with a sampling component at a subset of the cantaloupe packinghouses,” the Food and Drug Administration said in a letter today to growers, processors and shippers.
The action follows outbreaks in 2011 and 2012 of listeria and salmonella that collectively sickened 400 people and caused at least 36 deaths. Investigations into those outbreaks found unsanitary production, handling conditions and practices at packinghouses, according to the letter.
“The aim of these inspections is in part, to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify insanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers,” Michael Landa, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote in the letter. “In the event of adverse findings, we will take action as needed to protect the public health.”
The rough exterior of cantaloupes, known as netting, may harbor pathogens because they can hide in the crevices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pathogens on cantaloupe may get into the edible part of the fruit when a knife is used for cutting.
Inspections are welcome by the industry, which has already made strides to ensure safe handling and processing of cantaloupe, Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association, said by telephone.
“It’s going to demonstrate the cantaloupe industry has made tremendous progress,” Gilmer said. “If there are any operators not following modern guidelines, they need to get out of the industry.”