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Food Poisoning Report Cripples Melon Markets

August 20, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ West Coast and Texas cantaloupe markets have been virtually shut down since the federal Centers for Disease Control linked a nationwide outbreak of food poisoning to contaminated cantaloupe.

Angry growers say they’re losing thousands of dollars by the day as ripe melons sit in the fields and migrant workers wait to go back to work in packing sheds or help with the harvest.

Properly handled, cantaloupes are safe to eat, said Emil Corwin, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration. The melon rind should be washed with tap water, the fruit should be cut with a clean knife and either refrigerated or thrown away within four hours, he said.

Barbara Buck, spokeswoman for the Western Growers Association, said orders for California cantaloupes stopped completely Friday, after the CDC’s findings were reported, forcing farmers to leave ripening melons in the fields.

Although growers reported some orders Monday, they were getting as many cancellations, Buck said. One farmer told the association, whose members produce 60 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, that he had already lost $125,000.

″In the Central Valley of California, where towns and economies and people depend on cantaloupe, people were standing around not working Friday. Sales fellow to zero,″ Buck said. ″It’s hot out here, the melons are ready to pick and ship to consumers, and farmers shut down and didn’t pick over the weekend.″

Jerry Walzel, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Citrus and Vegetable Association in Harlingen, said $1.5 million worth of cantaloupes is sitting in the fields of the Pecos region because there had been no orders.

Some 1,200 seasonal workers who had migrated to the area from the Rio Grande Valley, he said, were unemployed Monday.

The growers’ troubles began after the CDC said Thursday that more than 400 people in 23 states and Canada had become ill from eating cantaloupes this summer, most in June and July. Researchers assume there are dozens of cases of salmonella poisoning for every one that is reported and confirmed.

John Shepherd, spokesman for Safeway supermarkets, said he could not say whether orders for cantaloupe were up or down.

He said demand for products fluctuates day to day or week to week, for a variety of reasons, and that if orders were down on cantaloupes, it would not be enough ″so that we could tell.″

″We’re not getting much comment in the stores,″ Shepherd said.

But a food industry official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the industry is reluctant to admit it is ordering less cantaloupe as a result of the salmonella report.

″A few are canceling, most are cutting way back,″ said the official. ″It applies not only to supermarkets, but to restaurant and food service buyers.″

Producer groups say the industry has complied with new handling guidelines for cantaloupe issued by the FDA since the salmonella outbreak was detected.

″As a result, there has been a virtual end to new cases,″ said George Dunlop, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

David Moore, president of the Western Growers Association, complained the CDC acted irresponsibly by reporting illnesses that occurred more than six weeks ago.

But CDC spokeswoman Gayle Lloyd said the agency routinely publishes reports on food-borne illnesses and said they often come out after an outbreak is over.

CDC investigators said contaminated cantaloupes in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota apparently came from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Melons implicated in a New Jersey outbreak were said to come from Texas, Arizona and California.

But Moore said melons from Arizona and California could not have been involved because cantaloupes from the primary producing areas weren’t being shipped at the time of the outbreak.

The CDC said it does not know exactly where contamination of the cantaloupe crop occurred, but that some bad melons may have come from Mexico.

Salmonella bacteria can cause mild to severe food poisoning, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and fever. It is most commonly transmitted via poultry or other meats, eggs or dairy products, but produce- related outbreaks have been reported occasionally.

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