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Despite Flawed FDA,
Cantaloupes Are Challenged

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 11, 2008

We’ve written quite a bit about Agropecuaria Montelibano and the “import alert” the FDA imposed against its cantaloupes grown in Honduras.

We kicked off our coverage with FDA Fumbles Again On Cantaloupe ‘Alert’, and ran a special 14-article edition devoted solely to the issue, which we called We Are All Affected By Cantaloupe Issue and Positive Test On Cantaloupe Causes More Confusion. We also dealt with some letters on the subject, including one by Tom Church of Church Brothers in a piece we entitled, FDA Status Quo Cannot Stand.

Although the issue has faded from the news, the “import alert” stands, and we have been hearing a great deal from food safety exports. Much of our analysis has been focused on the FDA and with good reason. Its procedures are disorganized, its field staff often not knowledgeable and it has, to be blunt, been acting as a bully, intimidating people to announce recalls.

Yet, whatever the flaws of the FDA — and we have not written the last of our coverage on that subject — it would be a horrible mistake for the industry to think this matter was just about FDA abuse.

It is also about cantaloupes.

Food safety experts we have great faith in have pointed us to evidence indicating that cantaloupes — particularly — are vulnerable, in a way smooth-skinned melons are not, toward picking up and retaining pathogens. We assume it has something to do with the netting, but there has been little research.

In a sense, our critique of the FDA is that its actions are not helping the public health because it has no reason to believe that the cantaloupes people will eat from elsewhere are any safer –and we stand by that opinion.

Yet it is also probably true that cantaloupes are more likely to transmit illness than honeydew or watermelon.

The industry has to recognize that the problem is not this farm or this country. We will achieve nothing by chasing the sun around the world to find safer places to grow cantaloupes.

What we actually need is a research project along the lines of what we have going on for leafy greens.

We ran a piece, Fresh Express Gives $2 Million: But Its Food Safety System May Be A Bigger Gift, that highlighted the Fresh Express donation of $2 million to conduct research on leafy greens and food safety. We also ran a piece entitled, Center For Produce Safety Established: An Act Of Faith In The Future, highlighting the multimillion-dollar donations of Taylor Farms and PMA to fund research via the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis.

Only through better understanding of the science surrounding cantaloupes and pathogens can we hope to permanently resolve this problem.

If any angel is looking to fund such research, just let us know and we’ll be happy to put you together with the right people.

The FDA made many mistakes and, of course, cantaloupes are, statistically, a very safe food. But it seems not quite as safe as other melons, and we could make them safer with better understanding.

The sins of the FDA should not distract the industry from its role in addressing this challenge.

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