The recent cantaloupe Salmonella outbreak has dominated headlines in the food industry over the past month, prompting concerns about cantaloupe safety and pre-cut cantaloupe purchased for the holiday season. Furthermore, food safety consultants know well that ensuring produce safety is challenging due to the nature of raw and perishable agricultural products. Consequently, ensuring cantaloupe safety involves many on farm and post farm precaution steps including proper picking, handling, washing and storage of the fruit to minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses such as Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. In addition, raw and ready to eat cantaloupe require diligent and safe preparation methods to avoid cross-contamination with contaminated surfaces or foods. Populations at risk should also experience caution when selecting and consuming fresh produce. As a result, trusting the source of the produce, whether domestic or imported, and safety preparing – storing, washing, peeling and slicing – cantaloupe melon goes a long way in ensuring produce safety. By practicing safety from farm to fork, consumers can enjoy cantaloupe while minimizing food safety risks.
Possible Causes of Outbreak
Originating in the US, this cantaloupe outbreak had claimed its first death in Canada 3 weeks ago, with investigations revealing a genetic link between the Salmonella strain reported by the US CDC and that reported by the CFIA. The affected cantaloupes, hailing from Malichita and Ruby brands, as well as pre-cut products from these brands, all trace back to the Sonora area of Mexico. This is not the first outbreak linked to Cantaloupe in the United States. Food safety experts are aware of the high risk nature of produce and the need to monitor cantaloupe safety.
Regulatory agencies are working to pinpoint the source of contamination and identify any additional products linked to the illness. Experts are reviewing the facts and weighing in on the root cause of the outbreak. Trevor Suslow, a Produce Safety Consultant from UC Davis, suggests that the late summer and early fall flooding in the Sonora region may have played a role in the outbreak.
Precautionary safety measures
Referring to the FDA’s 2013 Commodity Specific Food Safety Guideline for Cantaloupe, heavy rainfall leading to flooding can attract animals and increase the risk of pathogen survival, thereby compromising the cantaloupe safety. This is because floodwaters may expose produce to various contaminants, including pathogens, sewage, and chemicals. The netted rind of cantaloupes can transport pathogens, making contamination challenging to eliminate.
The FDA advises that crops exposed to floodwaters be considered adulterated and recommends their disposal to prevent cross-contamination. Even crops near flooded areas, without direct water contact, should undergo evaluation. As for importers, they must ensure foreign growers are aware of regulatory requirements such as the FDA Produce rule. They must also abide by import requirements like the FDA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Program and CFIA’s Supplier Food Safety Assurance Program under Safe Food For Canadians Regulations. Learning how to establish cantaloupe safety controls on farms is critical to prevent costly recalls.
This cantaloupe Salmonella outbreak is not an isolated incident; the fruit category has witnessed over 36 outbreaks since 1990. Notably, the 2012 Jensen Farm cantaloupe recall due to listeria monocytogenes contamination affected 147 individuals across 28 US states. Ensuring Cantaloupe safety has been a priority of the US FDA ever since the FDA (FSMA) Produce Rule was passed. The FSMA Produce Safety rule established science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. This final rule went into effect on January 26, 2016.
Safe Handling and Washing of Cantaloupe
The unique characteristics of cantaloupes, such as their netted rind, make them susceptible to bacterial attachment. Proper pasteurization, as indicated by a study from 2013 to 2014, involves thermal wash with rinsing water filtration without compromising cantaloupe safety and quality. Additionally, maintaining a sanitized packing line after the pasteurization is crucial to prevent recontamination.
For growers aiming to enhance cantaloupe safety, integrating industry best practices into daily operations is essential. Identifying potential issues and implementing practical measures requires a thorough gap assessment, ideally conducted by a food safety, or produce expert. Considerations extend to factors like irrigation water, prompting questions about source, testing frequency, acceptance criteria, and government-recognized testing methods.
FSMA Traceability Rule
On top of this, as of November 2023, the FDA has implemented a final rule of the additional traceability records in Nov 2023 which is aimed to expedite the identification and rapid removal of potential contaminated food from the market, resulting in fewer foodborne illnesses and/or fatalities. The core requirement is that whoever manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods maintain records containing Key Data Elements (KDEs) associated with specific Critical Tracking Events (CTEs) (definition and explanation of KDEs and CTEs can be found on the FDA website) and provide information to the FDA within 24 hours or within some reasonable time to which the FDA has agreed. Cantaloupe, categorized under the group “Melon” is listed on the Food Traceability List (FTL) that requires additional documentation. The compliance date for all persons subject to the recordkeeping requirements is set for Tuesday, January 20, 2026.
Ultimately, ensuring cantaloupe safety requires a proactive approach, anticipating potential sources of contamination and implementing robust measures to safeguard the reputation of the product and, more importantly, the well-being of consumers.
Sirocco Consulting provides food safety training, consulting and internal auditing services to food companies located in North America. Interested in produce safety and safety of imported produce, check our Produce Safety 101 blog.
Article co-written by Produce Safety Consultant Helen Xie and Certified SQF Consultant Karine Lawrence.