Cantaloupes and Food Safety

It’s been a tough road for cantaloupes this season. There was the Listeria outbreak that was linked to melons from a North Carolina farm. Then, the Indiana outbreak that was likely caused by Salmonella found on cantaloupes from a farm in Indiana – following last year’s outbreak caused by Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from a growing region in Colorado, which killed more than 30 people and sickened more than 140.

Despite these setbacks, cantaloupes remain a very popular summer fruit with California alone shipping over 10 million pounds of cantaloupes each day. But what can we can do to put the shopper at ease when purchasing this fruit? As a retailer, it’s important to be able to reassure your customers that the products you carry are safe, and also understand and legitimize their fears and concerns. One of the best strategies as a retailer is to help empower the consumer – help them understand that there are steps they can take both in their selection of a cantaloupe as well as how they handle the fruit at home, that can minimize risk. Here are some key points that are important to understand and important to share with your customers about cantaloupes:

- One of the reasons that food safety challenges are greater with cantaloupes is due to the netting on the rind – where pathogens can lodge (as opposed to the smooth surface on honeydews) and the fact that they’re grown on the ground makes them more susceptible to contamination from bacteria from the soil, water or animals.

- Both retailers and consumers should examine their cantaloupes carefully. Look for melons that are free of blemishes, cuts, sunken areas or mold growth. There is typically an area on a cantaloupe that is a lighter color than the rest of the melon. This is because that’s the area of the cantaloupe that was resting on the ground. Check that particular area very carefully for cuts or blemishes.

- Pay particularly close attention to the blossom end of the fruit. This area can be a pathway into the melon for pathogens that can actually get into the fruit of the melon. It’s also a key area where mold can develop.

- Once the melon arrives at a shopper’s home, where it lands is very important. If it was placed on a counter, it’s important to wipe that counter clean in case there are bacteria on the surface of the melon. If it goes into the refrigerator, it’s best to keep the melon from touching other foods.

- We typically don’t think about washing cantaloupes, but it’s actually a very good idea. Use a sturdy vegetable brush with warm water and some pretty vigorous scrubbing. The scrubbing is important because the spaces within the netted rind on the melon protect the bacteria and make it harder to remove any that might be there. Make sure the melon is dry before you begin cutting into the fruit.

- These days, it’s a good idea to do slices without the rind attached. If you do want to keep the rind attached, make sure the rind does not make contact with any of the actual interior fruit.

- It’s worth mentioning that an antidote to all of this for cantaloupes grown in the U.S. could be the Food Safety Modernization Act, which creates the first mandatory national safety standards for produce and will require a greater number of federal inspections at farms and other food-handling facilities. President Barack Obama signed the act into law on Jan. 4, 2011, but lawmakers have been dragging their feet on writing rules to implement it, so these standards and inspections have yet to occur in practice.

This information is certainly not intended to scare anyone. Cantaloupes are an incredibly popular fruit and late August and September are a wonderful time of year for excellent melons. We just want to make sure that you have the necessary information and expertise to handle questions and concerns you may receive from your customers. And, above all else, we are all committed to safety first.

Enjoy the rest of melon season… and be safe.