By GOSIA WOZNIACKA
MENDOTA, Calif. — On an October day in the midst of harvest season, two farmworkers sat idly in their home in a Central California town that touts itself as “the cantaloupe center of the world.”
Instead of picking the melons and supervising a work crew, Dora and David Elias of Mendota were unemployed — laid off along with hundreds of others as the cantaloupe listeria outbreak traced to Colorado rippled across the nation.
The pangs were particularly felt here in the top cantaloupe-producing state. Sales of California cantaloupes plummeted, even though their fruit was perfectly safe to eat. Farmers abandoned fields. Farmworkers lost jobs.
“We can’t sell the fruit,” said Rodney Van Bebber, sales manager for Mendota-based Pappas Produce Company. “Retail stores are taking cantaloupes off the shelves, and growers are disking in their fruit because people are afraid to eat them.”
Federal officials quickly isolated the contamination to Jensen Farms in the Colorado town of Holly, which recalled its cantaloupes in mid-September. The tainted cantaloupes should be out of stores now because their shelf life is about two weeks.
But the number of deaths has continued to grow because symptoms of listeria can take up to two months to appear. As of Wednesday, the outbreak was linked to 23 deaths and 116 sicknesses, making it the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in more than 25 years.
The Food and Drug Administration is still investigating its cause. Officials have said they were looking at the farm’s water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things.
But farmers said the outbreak’s source mattered little. In recent weeks, Van Bebber fielded more than 300 phone calls from customers asking whether his cantaloupes were contaminated. This despite the fact that the company has put California stickers on every piece of fruit; that the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board sent letters to customers informing them that California’s crop is safe; and that supermarkets have put up signs explaining that California cantaloupes were not part of the recall.
Growers are making similar efforts in Arizona, the second-biggest cantaloupe-producing state, where the season has just begun.
Cindi Pearson of Santa Rosa Produce in Maricopa, Ariz., who started harvesting 3,000 acres of cantaloupes last week, is labeling fruit with Arizona-grown stickers. She has placed laminated placards on the backs of her trucks to convince customers her fruit is safe.
“Consumers don’t understand that the Colorado melons are gone and it’s the start of a different season,” Pearson said. “Right now, cantaloupes should be the safest product to eat. But all people see is the deaths and sicknesses, and that image is getting reinforced in their minds. It’s devastating to us.”
Pearson said she’ll have to walk away from half of her crop. In California, where the season is nearly over, many growers are thinking about abandoning their fields, Van Bebber said. His company, which ships cantaloupes all over the United States and Canada, saw sales plunge 80 percent.
“I say we should just quit,” Van Bebber said. “There is no reason for us to keep picking.”
At Westside Produce in Firebaugh, a few miles from Mendota, company president Stephen Patricio laid off 150 of his 400 workers — including the Eliases — three weeks before the end of the season.
“If it was because of an actual outbreak in California and there was a real risk, I could accept it,” Patricio said. “But economic damage is being done to those who didn’t create the problem. I have walked away from millions of dollars-worth of product. And my workers, there is no more work for them.”
California-grown cantaloupes have never been linked to any foodborne illness outbreak, Patricio said. In fact, growers here funded research that helped refine their food safety practices. California and Arizona growers — who share a similar desert climate — have limited the use of water when growing cantaloupes by minimizing irrigation (it’s turned off several weeks before packing), field packing the fruit and no longer dunking cantaloupes in water to cool or sanitize the fruit.
But even those safety measures have not saved California and Arizona cantaloupes. Experts say it may now take industries longer to recover from outbreaks because of a consumer focus on food safety and more attention from both traditional and social media.
“I think there is so much background noise about food-borne illnesses and food safety that consumers are nervous,” said Hank Giclas, senior vice president of science and technology for Western Growers, an industry group that represents California and Arizona growers. “It’s a new thing; we see a whole lot more coverage of recalls even if no illnesses are reported, and consumers are more interested in the process their food goes through.”
Spinach sales, Giclas said, have still not fully recovered from the 2006 E. coli outbreak — despite heightened protections put in place by the industry. Before the outbreak, spinach brought in more than $188 million in gross revenue into Monterey County, which grows nearly half of California’s spinach. In 2010, spinach was worth about $128 million, according to the Monterey County Crop Report.
Efforts to restore consumer confidence with new requirements for food safety known as the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement have been only partially successful.
That doesn’t bode well for farmworkers in Mendota, many of whom had lost jobs in previous years due to the drought that swept through California and fallowed fields around Mendota.
“Before, there was no water, and now this outbreak. It’s always something,” Dora Elias said. “We’re just here waiting, hoping to get a phone call about a job.”