Is your cantaloupe safe to eat?

October 7, 2011

bill crepps and elizabeth

Farmer Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun (pictured at right with daughter Elizabeth) has been drying a lot of cantaloupes. In fact, that’s all he and his workers did on Wednesday—cut melons and put them in the dehydrator—because sales have been slow, just as the melon harvest is reaching its zenith.

The sudden decline in cantaloupe popularity precisely coincides with their recent prominence in the news. Images of the fruit have been the backdrop for grim reports about the third mostly deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the US. According to the CDC’s latest figures, 100 people have become ill and 18 have died from eating Jensen Farms’ Rocky Ford brand cantaloupes from Colorado, which were contaminated with Listeria.

None of the melons at the Ferry Plaza (or other California certified farmers markets) are from Jensen Farms. By definition, melons at these markets are sold by the California farmers who grow them.

Still, Bill says, “They’re just not going like they used to. I could hear people walking through the market saying, ‘Ooh—watch out for the cantaloupes.’” And even his regular customers seemed to think twice before buying them. “Some customers would say, ‘We know your melons are all right,’ and then they’d buy a Sharlyn melon,” he observed.

So, are farmers market melons safe?

The scale of a food safety problem is, potentially, proportional to the scale of the operation. Jensen Farms is no small farm: it recalled 300,000 cases of cantaloupes—roughly 2,700,000 melons. Those melons have traveled far and wide, and, because of the complex, many-tiered food distribution system, nobody knows where they all ended up. Illnesses from the fruit have been confirmed in 20 states. When millions of melons are processed through one facility and distributed broadly, a dangerous pathogen on one fruit can quickly become a national outbreak, spreading via contaminated surfaces or washing water, for example. Also, Listeria thrives in cold environments, so long periods in cold storage—common in this complex food supply chain—invite the bacteria to multiply.

At only 72 acres on average, fruit farms that sell at the Ferry Plaza are of a much more fathomable scale, and their distribution networks are generally much smaller. Yet Listeria is found naturally in the environment, and, though good sanitation can prevent contamination, any produce could potentially be vulnerable. The original source of the Listeria in this outbreak remains unidentified (some suspects are irrigation water, soil, “biosolids” [composted sewage sludge used in fertilizer], and animals such as sheep that graze in the area). Ever forthright and realistic, Bill reflects, “That’s the question that‘s still hanging out there. Why (Jensen Farms)? And until they know that, you cannot say it can’t happen anywhere else.”

Nonetheless, the traceability afforded by a farmers market—buying food from a familiar farmer who has an ongoing relationship with customers and who may even invite them to visit the farm—goes a long way. 59% of consumers said they’d pay a bit more for food that was traceable, according to a recent consumer survey. And farmers like Bill take pride in feeding their customers the safest, cleanest, most sustainable, and tastiest produce possible.

Foodborne illnesses have always plagued humans. The development of best practices for food safety has greatly minimized the risk, but eating—like driving, flying, or even breathing, for that matter—is never a no-risk activity. So Bill offers his customers the only assurance he knows: “I am there myself selling the cantaloupe. I know exactly how it was handled and what we did. These melons have been pre-tested before they make it to the market. We go out there in the field and taste them to see whether they’re ready. We’re cutting them open, and not washing them, so if we’re standing there in good shape selling them, that’s a pretty good sign.”

Consider supporting your local farmer by buying extra cantaloupe this week. Here are a few recipes:
Chilled Summer Melon Gazpacho
Tayberry-Melon salad with Sweet Fromage Blanc and Basil Syrup (substitute raspberries for tayberries)
Grilled Fig Salad with Cantaloupe, Fennel, Arugula, and Walnuts
Green and Orange Cocktail

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