I wrote this blog a decade ago – some things have not changed.

What do Cantaloupes and Baseball have in Common?

At Least Baseball Won’t Kill You.

I stopped being a fan of Alex Rodriquez years ago when he left the Mariners, so I was not that particularly bothered when he was banned from baseball for steroid use.

A-Rod’s banning, along with the past steroid-induced sins of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others, show that player punishment or embarrassment does not always stop the crime.

No serious person can believe that players have an incentive to play “clean.”  More homers and strikeouts mean more fans in the stands, or glued to TV commercials, and even more revenue for the owners.  More revenue for owners translates into bonuses for players, incentivizing players to cheat.  Owners talk all season about the evils of steroid use as they stuff great gobs of money into their pockets that they make from players advantaged by steroids.

Money talks and ethics walk.

Players are the well-paid chattel of owners who want to win at any cost.  Owners may well feign ignorance of steroid-induced homers or strikes, but they covet them nonetheless.  Banning A-Rod changes nothing.

Want to change the direction of baseball overnight?  Change the incentives.  If the Yankees had been banned from Baseball for a year and a half – not A-Rod – you can bet that no player in baseball would touch the stuff again.

So, what does cantaloupe have to do with Baseball?  Much, in addition to both being round.  Like players and the baseball industry, incentives are wrong with cantaloupe growers – actually all food – and the retail industry.

In 2011, Listeria-tainted cantaloupes grown in Eastern Colorado sickened 147 in two dozen states, killing at least 33.  It was the largest foodborne outbreak death toll in the United States in 100 years.  That is saying a lot given that the Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimate that food sickens 48,000,000, hospitalizes 135,000 and kills over 3,000 each year.

The year before, a third generation cantaloupe grower had been enticed by a broker-shipper preferred by Walmart and Kroger to expand its market nationwide.  An auditor recommended by Walmart inspected the farm and packing shed in 2011, while the cantaloupes were actually being washed by un-chlorinated, Listeria-tainted water.  The farm, as with most food audits, got a superior rating of 96%.  That was the green light for the cantaloupes to ship to your local Walmart or Kroger.

Those same retailers distance themselves from such behavior, clucking constantly about food safety from “farm to fork” and creating a “culture of food safety.”  They hire auditors as middlemen in the food-safety chain to give them cover to ignore food safety risks.

The grower of the tainted cantaloupe has gone bankrupt.  The grower is also facing criminal misdemeanor charges for selling food considered to be “adulterated,” which according to Federal law is food that “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.”  These charges, unlike a felony charge, “do not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct.”  The grower does face fines and jail nonetheless.

Countless other growers and manufacturers of food produced in the last decades have faced both civil and criminal liability – yet food poisoning continues.

Sound a bit like players facing suspension over and over again?

Retailers, like team owners, require audits, set the rules, called specifications, for how food – like cantaloupes – should be safely produced.  They then ignore their own rules because living by their rules costs a cent or two more, and that seems not worth the price.  Why?  Because just like Baseball owners who can pass the buck to the players, it is not retailers who are on the hook if there is a problem – the growers are.

Team owners squeeze their players by demanding performance.  No home runs or strike-outs – no place on the team.  Retailers squeeze their suppliers on price.  Not the lowest price?  You are out.  In fact, retailers squeeze growers for the last bit of profit, leaving little for growers to invest in producing safer food – an oddly perverse incentive.

Want to change the direction of food safety overnight?  Change the incentives.

Most Americans do not realize that the retailers they buy their food from are mainly insulated from civil and criminal liability.   Only their suppliers have liability.  But, if we were to put the onus of compensating customers for medical bills and lost wages onto the retailers that profit the most from the sale, their incentives to buy food that will not kill you would go up a lot.

Want to change the incentive of a retailer who sells you food that can make you sick or kill you?  Have them face jail time or fines if they do.

Want to make food safer from “farm to fork” in a “culture of food safety?”  Pay fair wages to farm workers and fair prices to growers.  Both are investments in safer food.

Like steroid use in baseball, food safety will not change until those with the most power have the incentive to change behavior.  Banning players or bankrupting cantaloupe growers does nothing to change the dynamic.  Banning baseball owners would stop steroid use overnight.  Fining or jailing retailers who sell food that kills people – well, that will do it.

I spent a few hours today digging back in the Food Safety News archives and found the following recalls and outbreaks linked to Cantaloupe – I may have missed a few – but there are still way too many.

October 2009 – California’s Department of Public Health is warning consumers in the Golden State not to eat Del Monte brand whole cantaloupe sold between Oct. 5th and 16th at Northern California and Nevada Raley’s, Bel Air, Nob Hill Foods, and Food Sources stores.

November 2009 – Cantaloupes packed under the Majesty label have been recalled by Brawley, CA-based Five Crowns Marketing because of possible contamination with Salmonella. The recall comes after laboratory analysis conducted by a consignee on a lot of cantaloupes packed by Five Crowns Marketing on November 4, 2009, resulted in a confirmed positive for Salmonella. Five Crowns Marketing issued a warning and voluntary recall on all cantaloupes shipped from the same lot.

October 2010 – Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc. Thursday said it was recalling certain cantaloupes grown and shipped from Arizona for distribution in the Detroit area. In a statement, Del Monte Fresh said the recalled cantaloupes “have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.” The Salmonella was discovered through random testing by the Michigan Department of Agriculture.  No illnesses have yet been associated with the recall.

December 2010 – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a Class 1 recall for HDC-brand whole cantaloupe after tests detected Salmonella in cantaloupe at a California distribution center for Raley’s Family of Fine Foods Stores. Raley’s has recalled all HDC whole cantaloupe sold at its stores in Bel Air, Nob Hill and Food Source stores from Dec. 4-17.  Raley’s also isolated and destroyed all implicated cantaloupe at the distribution center, according to a spokeswoman, who added that any cantaloupe currently on the shelf are not affected by the recall.

March 2011 – Del Monte Fresh recalled 4,992 cartons of cantaloupes on March 22, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration notified the Coral Gables, FL-based company of the outbreak. Product traceback information indicated the cantaloupes were from a single grower in Guatemala.

June 2011 – Eagle Produce of Scottsdale, Arizona has recalled 1,760 cartons of cantaloupes because the melons may be contaminated with Salmonella. The recall is the result of a routine and random test directed by the USDA and carried out by the New York Department of Agriculture. The company has ceased the production and distribution of the cantaloupes.

August 2012 – Wal Mart Stores, Inc. has instructed outlet managers to pull any cantaloupes grown in Indiana from its shelves, Bloomberg reports. Wal Mart could not confirm if any stores sourced cantaloupes from Indiana, but the company took the step as a precautionary measure. The company did confirm that Sam’s Club stores do not carry cantaloupes from Indiana. A multistate outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium linked to cantaloupes grown in southwestern Indiana has killed two people in Kentucky and sickened 141 people nationwide, the Kentucky Department for Public Health and the Indiana State Department of Health have confirmed to Food Safety News. 31 people have been hospitalized, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

September 2012 – As many as one-half million California-grown cantaloupes were recalled Thursday “out of an abundance of caution” by Fresno-based DFI Marketing Inc. Most have already been consumed without any illnesses being associated with them. But a single sample in a test by USDA’ Microbiological Data Program (MDP) did come back positive for Salmonella and that prompted recall of the cantaloupes that were widely distributed from Aug. 27 to Sept. 10. 

August 2013 – The Heeren Brothers Produce in Grand Rapids, MI, is recalling Athena cantaloupes that were distributed to local independent grocers, according to a local press report from WZZM. According to the report, 5,400 Athena Cantaloupes, distributed by Heeren Brothers Produce between July 23 and July 26, were recalled after routine sampling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found Listeria. The products have the potential to be contaminated and should not be eaten. Heeren Brothers alerted the retailers the positive test result. According to WZZM, there have been no reports of any illnesses connected to the fruit.

February 2016 – Freshpoint Vancouver Ltd. is recalling Del Monte and Sysco Imperial Fresh brand cantaloupes because of possible Salmonella contamination.  Consumers should not consume and retailers, hotels, restaurants and institutions should not sell, serve or use the recalled melons, according to the Feb. 18 recall notice on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website. “Food contaminated with Salmonella may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Consumers who are unsure if they have the affected cantaloupes are advised to check with their retailer,” according to the notice. This recall was triggered by CFIA test results. 

March 2016 – A Bi-Lo grocery store in Glennville, GA, is recalling freshcut cantaloupe three days after state officials notified the chain that a random sample collected at the store tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

December 2017 – At least 20 people are sick with Salmonella Newport infections linked to pre-cut watermelon and cantaloupe that was sold up to and including today at various grocery stores. State and federal officials are trying to determine what company supplied the fruit and whether any is still on store shelves. Anyone who bought pre-cut watermelon or cantaloupe — or mixed fresh fruit products containing watermelon or cantaloupe — in Washington or Oregon is urged to throw it away, according to an alert from the Washington Department of Health.

June 2018 – Caito Foods recalled fresh melon Saturday after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a multistate Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 60 people, sending 32 to hospitals. The Indianapolis-based Caito Foods recalled fresh cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut mixed fruit containing one of these melons because these products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. The recall includes a long list of brands including Trader Joe’s, Delish, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Renaissance and Open Acres.

April 2019 – The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) late Friday reported a multistate investigation which began on April 2, 2019, when PulseNet identified the outbreak. As of April 12, 2019, 93 people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Carrau have been reported from nine states – Alabama 1, Illinois 5, Indiana 18, Kentucky 16, Michigan 19, Minnesota 3, Missouri 3, Ohio 27, Wisconsin 1. In response, Caito Foods has recalled fresh cut watermelon, fresh cut honeydew melon, fresh cut cantaloupe and fresh cut mixed fruit containing one of these melons, produced at the Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis because these products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella Carrau.

September 2019 –   FDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) are investigating an outbreak of illnesses caused by Salmonella Javiana in Pennsylvania. Epidemiologic and traceback evidence indicate that fruit mix with cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and grapes from Tailor Cut Produce of North Brunswick, New Jersey, are a potential source of this outbreak. Foodservice and institutional food operators should not sell or serve the fruit mix with cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and grapes prepared by Tailor Cut Produce. Tailor Cut Produce reports that their products may be found in restaurants, banquet facilities, hotels, schools and institutional food service establishments in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

October 2020 – Grand Rapids, MI-based Meijer, in conjunction with Eagle Produce,LLC in Aguila, AZ., today announced the recall of whole cantaloupes and some cut cantaloupe fruit trays and bowls. The recall is part of a sampling investigation by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and is due to the potential risk of Salmonella. The multi-state recall involves the whole cantaloupe and some cut cantaloupe fruit trays and bowls in various weights ranging from 6 to 40 ounces sold between Sept. 26 and Oct. 5 at all Meijer stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. There have been no illnesses reported to date.

March 2022 – Freshcut fruit from Liberty Fruit Company Inc. is being recalled after government testing found a sample positive for Salmonella. The Kansas City, KS, company distributed the products to retailers and foodservice operations in four states,  Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, according to the company’s recall notice posted by the Food and Drug Administration. The products are packaged in 4-ounce, 8-ounce, 16-ounce and 32-ounce consumer containers as well as 5-pound foodservice containers. The recalled products are labeled as one of the following: Fruit Medley, Fruit Tray, Fruit Salad, Cantaloupe Chunks, Hawaiian Blend, and Melon Medley. The expiration dates marked on the labels range from March 21 through March 26.

April 2023 – The FDA is reporting that an August 2022 outbreak that sickened almost 90 people was linked to cantaloupe from three farms in Indiana. The agency finally reported yesterday where the sick people lived. The Food and Drug Administration notice posted on April 27 says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the FDA of the outbreak in the summer of 2022, but there is nothing on the CDC website about the outbreak. According to the FDA, 88 people across 11 states were sickened by Salmonella Typhimurium, with 32 people requiring hospitalization. No deaths were reported. There were likely many more people sickened because people with less significant symptoms often do not seek medical attention. Also, regardless of the severity of symptoms, many patients are not tested for foodborne pathogens because the illnesses mimic other infections.

September 2023 – Eagle Produce LLC of Scottsdale, AZ, is initiating a recall of 6,456 cases of whole cantaloupe with the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella following an FDA test conducted on cantaloupe in a distribution center. The Kandy brand melons were distributed Sept. 5 -16 in California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington D.C. and sold in various retail supermarkets.

November 2023 – Vinyard Fruit and Vegetable Company of Oklahoma City, OK, is recalling freshcut cantaloupe products because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. Some of the freshcut cantaloupe products have best-by dates stretching to Nov. 22. Because of a Nov. 8 recall of fresh, whole cantaloupes by Sophia Foods LLC, doing business as Trufresh, in response to a notification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of a potential contamination with Salmonella, Vinyard Fruit and Vegetable Company is issuing this recall. Cantaloupes recalled by Sophia Foods LLC were used as a raw material in 12 Vinyard cantaloupe products.