LEXINGTON, N.C. - Incidents of contamination in U.S. cantaloupe production in recent years prompted state agencies to hold a safety workshop to educate growers, packers and others.
Cantaloupes represent a small slice of North Carolina's agricultural output, but officials wanted to make sure that melons were contaminate-free when they arrived in stores.
Less than 2,000 acres statewide are devoted to cantaloupe production but outbreaks of listeria and other pathogens in other parts of the country have provided plenty of impetus for the new cantaloupe pilot program.
"We have many facilities and packers as well as farmers in this state,” said Benjamin Chapman with the N.C. State University Cooperative Extension. “What we're doing is providing them with education around food safety strategies to reduce the likelihood of something bad happening."
Fresh produce, cantaloupes included, can carry pathogens if not safely harvested, processed and distributed.
"Historically salmonella but most recently listeria has been spotlighted because of a very large outbreak that happened in 2011 where over 30 individuals died," said Chapman.
Better detection methods are available but the foes of food safety have evolved.
"We're seeing more virulent pathogens out there than we saw before," said the extension's Diane Ducharme.
Growers said that's got their attention.
"(It's) extremely important for myself, for my friends and customers, for my family," said D.D, Gamble, a grower from Waxhaw.
The other farmers in the area, I know they try their best to keep it as safe and as clean as possible," said Matthew Leary of Leary Plant Farm.
Chapman said there was no such thing as "zero risk" food but attention to best practices could greatly curb the potential for contamination.
"There's nothing out there that you can put 100 percent safe stamp on,” he said. “It's all about what does someone do to make sure that they're reducing those risks as close to zero as possible."
This was the state's second workshop this month. The pilot program also offers assessments of farming operations to help identify potential concerns.