The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has outlined their concerns of cantaloupes being susceptible to listeria monocytogenes in a letter sent to industry.
The letter, issued to firms that grow, harvest, sort, pack, process or ship the product, follows on the back of a letter issued in November 2011 in response to a multi-state foodborne illness outbreak associated with consumption of fresh, whole cantaloupe.
The agency said it wanted to stress the importance of safe and sanitary production and handling of the melon in the letter dated 25 February.
Sampling step up
During the 2013 growing season, the agency said it intends to initiate inspections with a sampling component as a subset of cantaloupe packinghouses in the country.
“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.”
Action will be taken in the event of adverse findings, continued the FDA.
The agency urged industry to review current operations in regard to the relevant standards and follow good agricultural and manufacturing practices.
It also encouraged firms to seek other information on pathogen reduction or elimination on fresh produce.
“We will continue to target imported cantaloupes at the border for sampling and may engage in other surveillance and inspection activities as circumstances warrant to meet our public health regulatory mandate and responsibilities.”
Two major incidents
In 2011 and 2012, the FDA responded to two major outbreaks traced to fresh cantaloupe and to one pathogen-positive cantaloupe finding identified through expanded surveillance sampling following one of the outbreaks.
One outbreak was the result of cantaloupe contamination with the bacterial pathogen listeria monocytogenes (Lm) and the second was the result of contamination with multiple serovars of salmonella.
In total, more than 400 people became ill and at least 36 people died as a result of these two outbreaks, said the FDA.
“Our investigations in these outbreaks and in follow-up to an Lm positive cantaloupe sample result revealed, in part, multiple findings of insanitary production, handling conditions, and practices in packinghouses.
“We have since published findings we believe are contributing factors that most likely led to cantaloupe contamination with human pathogens at farms and packinghouses in a number of states.”
The FDA ended on a positive note, saying it “applauded” actions taken by many in the industry to address food safety.
“We are confident that the industry, including growers, harvesters, sorters, packers, processors, and shippers, will continue to work to provide safe cantaloupes to American consumers.
“We continue to stand ready to provide technical assistance to the industry and to work collaboratively with our state partners, retailers, and others in pursuit of our common goal of enhancing food safety.”