The domestic cantaloupe industry will experience increased food safety inspections and product sampling from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), according to a letter from the agency to the industry released on February 25.

FDA issued the letter to firms that grow, harvest, sort, pack, process or ship cantaloupe, to further the common goal of enhancing the safety of cantaloupe. FDA stated that to move forward with implementation of the produce safety provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), it is essential that the cantaloupe industry and the produce industry in general, observe best practices already recognized by FDA and the industry as effective in reducing the risk of harmful contamination.

The letter underscored the importance of best practices for the cantaloupe industry in light of recent outbreaks and pathogen positive sample findings associated with fresh cantaloupes. FDA recognizes that many cantaloupe industry organizations have taken actions to address food safety issues associated with growing, handling, processing and distribution of whole and fresh-cut cantaloupe, and applaud efforts led by the cantaloupe industry that are aimed at enhancing cantaloupe safety.

The letter intended to reiterate the concerns of FDA regarding possible contamination of cantaloupes with Listeria monocytogenes and other pathogens, highlighting the critical importance of safe and sanitary production and handling of cantaloupe.

The letter comes on the heels of two major outbreaks in 2011 and 2012 traced to fresh cantaloupe and to one pathogen-positive cantaloupe finding identified through expanded surveillance sampling following one of the outbreaks. One outbreak was the result of cantaloupe contamination with the bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, and the second was the result of cantaloupe contamination with multiple serovars of Salmonella.  In total, more than 400 people became ill and at least 36 individuals died as a result of these two outbreaks.

Because the recent outbreaks have been traced to domestic cantaloupe packinghouses, during the 2013 growing season, FDA intends to initiate inspections with a sampling component at a subset of the cantaloupe packinghouses in the United States.  The aim of these inspections is in part, to assess the current practices by this segment of the produce industry and to identify insanitary conditions that may affect the safety of cantaloupe destined for distribution to consumers. In the event of adverse findings, FDA will take action as needed to protect public health and will continue to target imported cantaloupes at the border for sampling and may engage in other surveillance and inspection activities as circumstances warrant to meet public health regulatory mandate and responsibilities.

The letter closes with a promise from CFSAN to stand ready to provide technical assistance to the industry and to work collaboratively with state partners, retailers and others to enhance food safety.