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Growers edgy about bad Mexican melons

May 17, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

Tainted cantaloupes from Mexico caused a recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning in California and has melon farmers here on edge.

Similar outbreaks over the last decade from Mexican melons caused several deaths and last year caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a food safety warning.

Last August farmers in the Southwest called for a quarantine on cantaloupes from Mexico because of the chronic problems with food safety

"There's a mixed bag going on right now," said John Hawk, president of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association and a melon farmer.

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Last year a salmonella outbreak caused two deaths while the importer refused to recall the product and reveal where the cantaloupes came from, Hawk said.

That crushed the local market because the problem was not taken care of and people stopped buying melons, he said.

This year the outbreak was handled quickly. The importer, I. Kunik Co. of McAllen, Texas, identified the brand, Susie-brand from Mexico, and recalled all of the product, Hawk said.

But anytime there's a salmonella outbreak, it can hurt local farmers.

Cantaloupes from Mexico are in the markets now. Cantaloupes from the Valley are just being harvested. They'll harvest from now until June, Imperial County Farm Bureau Executive Director Steve Pastor said.

"It's very bad timing," Pastor said.

The Western Growers Association, Arizona Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration have scheduled a meeting May 29 in Phoenix to consider action on food-safety issues related to melon imports.

"We go to a lot of expense to make sure we put out a quality product," Hawk said. "But only 1 percent of fruit that crosses the border is tested."

Hawk and local vegetable growers are planning to attend the Phoenix meeting and will ask, as they did last year, for stricter testing of imports or possibly a quarantine.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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