Following a spike in cases of listeriosis this year, the Australian melon industry has worked closely with New South Wales Food Authority to determine the source. Listeriosis is caused by eating food contaminated with a bacterium called Listeria monocytogenes
, which is harmful to those who are older, pregnant or have underlying health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart and kidney disease. It can occur in foods like pre-cut melons, pre-packed salads, pre-cooked cold chicken, cold delicatessen meats, pâté, raw seafood, uncooked smoked seafood, unpasteurised milk, soft cheeses, sprouts and mushrooms. Eating foods that contain Listeria bacteria does not cause illness in most people.
Source of outbreak
The source of the contamination has been found on only one melon farm in New South Wales. The fruit from this farm have been removed from the supply chain nationally and in export markets. The grower undertook a Trade Level Recall of all rockmelons. Honeydew melon and watermelon from this farm have all tested negative for listeria.
The NSW Food Authority has visited the implicated farm and has conducted microbial tests of all areas of the packing operation, coolrooms, soil and water. It is not yet known what has caused the outbreak. We have requested a report on their testing and the results, as the industry as a whole needs to learn from this incident. It is not known yet when that report will be completed. The grower will not be able to supply rockmelons until the investigation is complete and the NSW Food Authority allow supply from the farm to resume.
Support for supplying growers
Other farms currently supplying rockmelons to the market have tested negative for food-borne microbial diseases including listeria. Other types of melons are not implicated. To help other growers who are not implicated in this issue, we have an information webpage on the melon industry website that provides a source of evidence to help growers negotiating sales. It includes:
- An open letter to the AMA on NSW Government letterhead, from the NSW Food Authority stating that they are only concerned about one grower and that as of 2nd March 2018, all rockmelons available for sale or export are not implicated in this outbreak.
- Negative microbial test results for currently supplying farms.
- Food safety posters for growers
We have been working to maintain information flow to wholesalers and retailers concerning the process of the investigation and the concerns of other supplying growers. Although the implicated grower has not been named by the NSW Food Authority, we have done everything possible to ensure that other growers keep the confidence of the supply chain.
We have been coordinating with the Federal Department of Agriculture & Water Resources and Hort Innovation to:
- Ensure that the levy funds can be used to assist the industry as quickly as possible.
- Assist exporters with consignments that could be affected by adverse declarations in overseas markets
The Industry Development Manager has undertaken numerous media enquiries including television, radio and print. Calls from a broad range of food processors, and consumers concerned about buying rockmelon have been dealt with. This has taken a lot of time but has been important to give the message of an industry committed to supplying consumers with healthy good quality product. Overall, there is sympathy for growers who are affected through no fault of their own. We will be aiming to capitalise on that message. We have also developed an information page for consumers on the industry website
Regaining consumer confidence
This is a serious issue for the melon industry and has severely impacted on the entire industry. We estimate that sales have plummeted 80-90% and there is possible resistance from consumers to other types of melons as well.
We have organised a meeting in Sydney, Thursday 8th March, with the major retailers, wholesalers and Hort Innovation to determine the best way to restart the category and regain the confidence of the consumer. This will not be an easy task and will not happen in a short timeframe. We can use the melon levy to undertake a range of tasks, however the levy is a Research & Development levy and NOT a marketing levy, so we do have constraints on what the funds can be used for. However, we do have a group of retail partners and seed companies who are very supportive of the melon industry and want to play their part in the kick-start process.
We will provide you with an update of the outcomes of the meeting as soon as possible.
Industry as one
It is important that the all growers direct any media enquiries to the Australian Melon Industry Development Manager, so that we can maintain one message on this issue. We must maintain a united position as an industry. Divided we fall.
Thank you for the support that we have received and please be assured that all that can be done, is being being done.