❖ On Cantaloupe and Marketing Orders
“The California cantaloupe industry has never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak.”
A good bet: whenever a company, big or small, claims their food has never made anyone sick, they are probably wrong.
They just never got caught. It’s nothing personal. It’s just probability.
That’s why this wording is interesting. Patricio doesn’t actually claim that his product never made anyone sick, just that it’s never “been associated.” Clever. Lawyery. And true, maybe. But we know what he’s implying.
There are legitimate reasons to think that the dry conditions prevalent in California production might be less amenable to contamination and growth of pathogens than the wetter conditions they’re grown in elsewhere. And it’s certainly true that of the long list of recent outbreaks and recalls associated with cantaloupes, many are imported and none are from California (one on the list says California, but were actually imported from Mexico). Still, the origin of many of the outbreaks are unknown. More importantly, breakdowns happen without concern for state borders. Pathogens aren’t in the habit of checking drivers’ licenses.
Most mistakes are small and therefore most outbreaks are small and are never even identified as such. Most illnesses are never reported. When they are reported, the chances of finding the implicated food are small. And even when investigators figure out the food, the chances of tracing it back through a global food chain to the origin farm are tiny.
So has California cantaloupe ever made someone sick? I’d bet on it.
And so are California growers, it seems. Why else would they be requesting, as 99% of news headlines about this press release suggest, increased “government regulation?” Oh, well, it’s because they’re not. Is it even fair to call marketing orders regulation? These things are set up largely by industry and are principally and historically a tool for, well, marketing. Yes, they are enforced by law, but that doesn’t really make them regulation. This is why they are managed by the Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) of USDA, and not the food safety people. And they have nothing to do with FDA, who have, arguably, the only true regulatory oversight for produce safety.
I tend to be wary of market agreements because they can be abused against smaller growers who can’t afford the systems put in place by the largest companies and because they can be used to fight innovation. What if some cantaloupe company developed some new protocols or practices that they felt were safer? What if they wanted to market on safety, and wanted to release some data to back it up? Would a marketing order preclude such a scenario? It could.1
So I get cynical: Is this marketing order about safety or perception of safety? Is it about creating PR for California cantaloupes as being safer than those grown elsewhere? Is it about creating barriers to small producers within California who don’t follow the guidelines set up by the big guys? Is it about heading off FDA action by putting into place a friendlier scheme within USDA’s AMS? Is it about bringing in government oversight because the standards within the marketing order might be a good deal less onerous than those that might be created by downstream customers like grocery store chains? I’d bet on all of these.
Here’s the thing: Marketing orders may not be regulation, and they may have some real competitiveness issues, but the question isn’t binary. It’s not: is this a perfect solution? Will this scheme, on its own and overseen by some form of government inspection, suddenly make everything safer? The answer is no. But the question we should be asking is: is this a step in the right direction? Is it a net positive that a significant chunk of the industry is moving forward on its own to deal with a food safety issue?
I’m with Don on this one: yes, this is a good thing. It could be a very good thing.
So, Colorado cantaloupe growers, it’s your turn. What do you propose?
My favorite example of a marketing order is the one that was set up in Florida for size and shape of tomatoes. The Florida Tomato Committee, an industry group, prevented one company from shipping so-called UglyRipe tomatoes, which are misshapen but supposedly far tastier, from being exported out of state. Think about that: they couldn’t ship out of state? Crazy. Basically, the commodity industry fought against someone who wanted to use market differentiation as a competitive advantage. The company had to lobby USDA for years to overturn the ruling, and finally won in 2007. Now you can buy these tomatoes anywhere. ↩