California cantaloupe farms regroup after listeria outbreak

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?'"

Greg Johnson, editor of the Packer, the leading industry newspaper for fruits and vegetables, agreed that the meeting is important.

"But even if they do come up with a good safety metric, will the public pay attention?" he asked. "California cantaloupe are safe — were safe all along. But can you expect someone in Kansas City, where I live, to pay attention to whether the cantaloupe is from California?

"They're just trying to buy some food and feed their family."

In the absence of far-reaching advertising campaigns, Cohen said the individual farmers can take matters into their own hands. To help ease out of the tomato crisis, she advised her client to answer every question from the public on the risks and safety measures associated with produce.

"For small growers that may mean answering phone calls, posting messages on their company websites," she said.

Don Smith, 82, was way ahead of her. He runs Turlock Fruit Co. — a farm founded by his father in 1918 — with his son and grandson in the Central Valley. At the start of the cantaloupe problem in the fall, he had his grandson — the one who went to Yale, he noted — post on the company website that anyone with concerns about their cantaloupes should call them.

The site got about 14,000 hits a day, and scores of consumers took up the offer to telephone the farm.

"One day I know I talked to 50 people," Smith said. "Some of the calls were touching. A woman in Chicago whose little girl was sick, someone from Alaska. I heard the fear.

"I told each and every one of them our cantaloupe were safe and anything else they wanted to know about how we grew them."

In debating the future direction of the company, Smith takes a more optimistic stand than that of his son and grandson, who think the industry will be injured for a long time.

"Maybe it's that I'm older and I've seen cantaloupe beset by all kinds of drama: weather, water, labor unrest, truck and train rates," he said. "But mostly I think the backlash will blow over because this area has warm, dry days and cold nights, and we really do grow the best cantaloupe."

Still, he says he will put in fewer acres than last season. But just how many acres?

That's Smith's secret.

"You can't ask a Texas cowboy how many cows," he said, "or a melon grower how many acres."

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