The FDA issued a letter Monday warning cantaloupe farmers and packers that the federal agency would be inspecting them and testing melons for pathogens this year, after two years of illness and recalls.
The FDA does not routinely target an industry for scrutiny, and its inspectors have rarely reached smaller farms or food packers more than once every few years.
But the Monday letter urging cantaloupe growers to adhere to FDA growing guidelines to avoid food illness outbreaks said the agency will begin inspecting a "subset" of melon handlers.
"The aim of these inspections is in part to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify unsanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers. In the event of adverse findings, we will take action as needed to protect the public health," read the letter, from Michael Landa, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
A listeria outbreak traced to Colorado's Jensen Farms killed 33 people in 2011, and more were sickened last year in an outbreak traced to salmonella at an Indiana cantaloupe packer. The incidents and other pathogen outbreaks have forced inspectors and agriculture experts to rethink safety with the "netted" melon rinds that carry bacteria.
It's not clear how the proposed cantaloupe inspections would fit with sequestered U.S. spending, which threatens across-the-board budget cuts to many domestic agencies by the end of this week. The FDA said it would force a cut of 2,100 inspections at food handling facilities across the nation and abroad.
"If they don't back it up with inspections, and they don't back it up with enforcement, what's to stop the next outbreak?," said Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler, who represented most of the victims in Colorado's cantaloupe outbreak.
Rocky Ford cantaloupe grower Eric Hanagan said new scrutiny will be "no problem" since farms instituted a rigorous harvesting and testing program in cooperation with the state. Last year's harvest and sales were strong, Hanagan said.
"It's nothing new for us. We're right on track. We know we need to do everything we can to ensure a safe food source for our consumers," Hanagan said.
Federal agencies have occasionally asked specific industries to rework safety plans, including California's leafy greens industry after a 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach.
In the Jensen Farms outbreak, FDA and state inspectors traced the listeria to puddles in the packing shed. The farm also used sorting equipment that couldn't be sanitized because it was meant for raw potatoes.
The FDA has since told farmers they should follow industry guidelines requiring a cooling of field-hot cantaloupe before packing, and use chlorine or another sanitizer in produce wash.
Colorado's other melon growers, who in good years constitute an $8 million industry, banded together last year to create a sanitary central handling system.
Jensen Farms, meanwhile, declared bankruptcy, freeing up insurance money for victims. Marler and other attorneys have pushed for a settlement with distributors and produce auditing labs to create a larger compensation pool.
Michael Booth: 303-954-1686, email@example.com or twitter.com/mboothdp