Earlier this year the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA) was formed to restore confidence in the cantaloupe industry. Confidence needed to be restored after the 2011 Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe resulted in the death of 33 people. The cantaloupe was traced back to Jensen Farms in Colorado.
Compounding matters, in September, the owners of Jensen Farms were arrested and brought up on criminal misdemeanor charges. The brothers running the farm, Eric and Ryan Jensen, pleaded guilty to the charges.
With the recent criminal charges, cantaloupe is once again in the limelight. American Vegetable Grower spoke with Charles Hall, the executive director of the ECGA as well as the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, to get an update on ECGA’s progress, its future plans, and find out what is the takeaway message to growers in light of the negative press cantaloupe has been receiving. (To read more about the ECGA and its expectations of growers, go to http://bit.ly/16DNBWA.)
Q1 How was the first season for the growers in the ECGA?
Hall: The first season was not as good as we had hoped due to the poor weather conditions. As far as retail acceptance, we had some positive steps with several retailers looking specifically for EGCA growers. We will be working with other retailers and food service companies over the next several months to encourage them to utilize our ECGA-certified growers to supply their melons.
Q2 Moving forward, how many growers are on board with the ECGA to date? How many are expected by the 2014 growing season?
Hall: At this time we have approximately 20 growers that are certified or will be by the next growing season. We hope to add many more before the spring of 2014.
Q3 In light of the recent charges against the Jensens, what have been some of the big concerns of growers in the ECGA?
Hall: The biggest concern is just the heavy liability that all growers face in producing food products. A grower could be doing everything right, but that does not guarantee there won’t be a food-borne disease outbreak. If they are doing everything correctly, the probability is very low, but there are no absolutes in the produce business, and we don’t have a kill step with our fresh products.
Q4 What is your takeaway message to cantaloupe growers regarding the criminal charges?
Hall: The takeaway, to me, is that as an industry we have to be doing everything right. There is no room for error. We have to minimize the possibility, but if an outbreak occurs the systems must be in place to recall the product quickly and efficiently. AVG