ATLANTA — Entering its second year, the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association plans to help retailers boost sales with a recipe marketing program while it fine tunes its food safety plan for members.
Membership in the association has more than doubled since its founding last year, increasing from eight growers to 19, said Charles Hall, executive director of the LaGrange, Ga.-based group. Grower members control about 4,500 of the estimated 10,000 acres of cantaloupe grown east of the Mississippi River, he said.
Coral BeachFrey Farms chief operating officer Paul Fleming (from left), talks with Charles Hall, Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association executive director, and Bill Brim, president, after the organization’s conference March 3 in Atlanta.“We hope to double our membership by 2015,” Hall said during the association’s March 3 conference and research update.
The group grew out of industry concerns following deadly outbreaks of listeria and salmonella in 2011 and 2012 that were linked to cantaloupe from Colorado and Indiana, respectively. To be a member, growers must meet food safety criteria established by the association.
Growers must submit to unannounced audits to check their compliance in order to maintain certification through the association. As science discovers additional measures, the group plans to incorporate them into its grower requirements, Hall said.
Association president Bill Brim, co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms, Tifton, Ga., said one goal when the group formed was to encourage retailers to require growers to be certified and thus protect the entire industry. Several retailers sent representatives to the association’s March 3 event.
“I’m here to see what you are doing,” said John Kolenski, senior director of food safety and regulatory compliance for the Kroger Co., Cincinnati. “If you look at pink slime, the meat industry lost that one. I want to know what your plan is from a marketing perspective to deal with the next problem when it happens. We need a plan from you guys.”
After the conference Kolenski said the group’s work is encouraging.
“Being proactive is not a matter of choice. It’s a requirement,” Kolenski said, “and what the ECGA is doing helps.”
The association’s executive director said the group is working on a response strategy for future recalls or outbreaks, as well as a consumer marketing campaign to help boost consumption and retail sales.
Hall said the marketing campaign should begin in late March with quick-response codes linking consumers to a 30-second instructional video on how to avoid cross contamination at home. The QR link will also include recipe ideas for fresh cantaloupe. The association plans to offer QR code point-of-sale materials to retailers for free.