EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) -- Over the past two seasons cantaloupe growers have been hit by outbreaks of illnesses among consumers that were blamed on bacterial contaminations associated with the melons that cast a pall over the entire industry. But this year the growers are hitting back with a homegrown food safety initiative.
In 2011, 146 people became ill in a listeria outbreak traced to a Colorado cantaloupe grower, Jensen Farms.
Closer to home, last summer, Chamberlain Farms in Gibson County was identified as the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened 261 people in 24 states.
In response to those two incidents, a group of cantaloupe farmers — including some in the Tri-State — has formed the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association, which focuses on food safety practices, the Evansville Courier & Press reported (http://bit.ly/14WlSLK ).
Based in Georgia, the association got its start last fall, as growers got together to decide what they could do about the recent food safety problems.
"It was basically trying to restore consumer and buyer confidence in the cantaloupe market," said the association's executive director, Charles Hall.
As compared to other types of melons, Hall said, cantaloupes can be more prone to contamination because their outer surface is rough, or "netted." This surface makes it easier for microbes to attach to the surface of the fruit, and harder to clean them off.
The organization was incorporated in January and now has about a dozen or so members from a handful of states: Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina.
"That's not a lot — but we only got started last year," Hall said.
The group's officers and directors include representatives from several Tri-State farms: Wayne County, Ill.-based Frey Farms, and Knox County, Ind.-based Melon Acres and Wonning Melon Farms.
Association members agree to abide by specific practices in the growing, harvesting, packing and transporting of cantaloupes. These practices are numerous and include things like testing water sources at least once a month; and avoiding the use of carpeting, wood or other porous surfaces that come into contact with the fruit.
Members also must undergo food safety audits, including one unannounced audit during packing season.
"There's always a chance of some kind of outbreak happening, but the process that our growers are following are as good as you can get from that standpoint," Hall said.
So how has this year's cantaloupe season been?
Hall said he doesn't have hard numbers, but believes the industry is rebounding from the past two rough years.
"The American public's pretty forgiving," Hall said.
Anecdotally, Hall said, he's heard from some growers who said they planned to get out of the cantaloupe business. But on the other hand, he said other growers said they planned to plant more cantaloupe in hope of picking up the slack.
On the retail side, St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets said it hasn't seen a dip in consumer demand for cantaloupes. Until last year, Schnucks got some of its cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farms.
Schnucks spokesman Paul Simon said the retailer currently buys its cantaloupes from growers in California, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.
"A year later, demand for cantaloupe in the summer is as high as it ever is," Simon said.
Reimann Farm Market, a small grower in Darmstadt, Ind., said it's also seen demand for its cantaloupes rebound.
Reimann grows a variety of produce — cantaloupes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans — at its seven-acre operation.
Karen Reimann Owens, daughter of the farm's founder, Jim Reimann, said last year's salmonella outbreak hurt the entire industry.
Reimann sells its produce from its property and at area farmers markets. Owens said that last year, one market wouldn't allow her family's farm to sell its cantaloupe, even though her farm had nothing to do with the salmonella outbreak.
"People had such a phobia about cantaloupe — any cantaloupe," she said.
This year, though, consumers are back looking for cantaloupe, Owen said.
Owen said she believes customers are loyal to her family's operation because they know and trust it, and because of the quality of the produce.
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com