WASHINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Southwestern Indiana's melon growers are facing new federal food-safety regulations following last year's salmonella outbreak that killed three people who ate Indiana-grown cantaloupes.
The Food and Drug Administration will be inspecting packing sheds and possibly field conditions as part of that effort. Samples of the melons will be taken and tested for salmonella and E. coli, among other pathogens.
E. coli and salmonella are the two most common of food-borne illnesses passed from tainted produce onto consumers.
Purdue Extension educator Scott Monroe said the State Department of Health has hired two farm food safety consultants to assist in the farm produce education campaign. Purdue has had food safety teams in place for three years, he said.
Monroe said the two consultants, one based in Oaktown and the other in Fort Wayne, will work directly with farmers.
"If farmers have questions, they will contact the consultants who can guide them," Monroe told the Washington Times-Herald.
A salmonella outbreak traced to a southwestern Indiana cantaloupe farm killed three Kentucky residents last year. That outbreak followed a 2011 Listeria outbreak that killed 33 people who ate cantaloupes grown on a Colorado farms.
Workshops were recently held in southwestern Indiana — the center of Indiana's cantaloupe and watermelon production — to educate melon farmers and their workers about the FDA's new expectations for protecting consumers from food-borne pathogens.
The rough, pitted surfaces of melons can trap dirt and pathogens, making contaminants harder to remove during the fruit-processing following harvest.
Most large melon growers harvest the fruit from the field, unload and wash it, pack it and then cool the fruit before it's shipped to stores. All that moving of the melons and washing can lead to unsanitary conditions in packing houses.
A letter from the FDA released in February states that investigations into both last year's salmonella outbreak and the 2011 Listeria outbreak traced to a Colorado farm revealed multiple instances of unsanitary production, handling conditions, and packing house practices that lead to those outbreaks.
Nearly one-third of all cases of food borne illness come from produce. In addition to cantaloupes, leafy greens, green onions, and tomatoes are usually the most susceptible.
Consumer who purchase cantaloupes and other melons are advised to use a vegetable brush to scrub away dirt and other material on the rind. The fruit should then be patted dry with a clean towel and allowed to dry before it's sliced or cut up.
Information from: Washington Times-Herald, http://www.washtimesherald.com