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Watermelon Industry Creates Food Safety And Crisis Management Guidelines

We’ve been running a project here at the Pundit to learn what different commodity groups and geographical sectors are doing to enhance food safety. We started in the east with Pundit Pulse — New Jersey Dept Of Ag’s Al Murray to see how a state department of agriculture was working to enhance food safety across a diverse range of commodities. We followed this with California Strawberry Industry Moves To Make Food Safe, focusing in on one commodity from one state.

Tomatoes were our next subject, first in the southeast, with pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florida Tomato Committee’s Reggie Brown, and then we went out west with Moving Food Safety On To Other Commodities: California Tomato Farmers Raise The Bar.

Next we turned to almonds an industry utilizing a mandatory marketing order to establish food safety regulations. That piece was called Pundit Pulse Of The Industry: California Almond Board.

Now we try something different… we look at the watermelon industry, which, almost uniquely, has a national association and a national marketing order. To learn how this industry is addressing the issue of food safety, we asked Pundit Investigator and special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to see what we could learn.

Mark Arney
CEO, Executive Director
Leslie Coleman
Director of Communications
National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB)


Q: In the produce industry’s quest to enhance food safety, is it underplaying the importance of crisis management following an outbreak?

MARK: Like an insurance policy, it is critical to have a comprehensive crisis management strategy and clear communication action plan. You hope not to use it but you’re making a good investment on the premium. These are very strong initiatives in direct response to the spinach crisis; to be sure we’re doing everything possible to be prepared.

Q: What is NWPB’s relationship with The National Watermelon Association (NWA) in making it happen?

MARK: NWA President Bradley O’Neal is also on our board of directors, which is helpful. NWA Chairman and past-President Brent Jackson was on our board of directors until recently and very much involved. We are prohibited from lobbying government for funding, whereas NWA, our sister-trade organization can. Bob Morrissey, CEO, runs that effort.

Developing a crisis communication plan started at the top level with our Chairman and President, Brent Harrison, but it is truly a team endeavor. We all put our heads together to strategize what role we needed to take to prepare for a crisis. Crisis management training would be handled by NWPB in partnership with NWA, which would focus on GAP, certification, food safety issues at farm and packing house levels, and collaborating with the other industry organizations on safety initiatives.

Q: Many industry executives say the spinach outbreak spiraled out of control in terms of how it was handled in the media, at the government, retail, foodservice, and consumer levels. The outbreak’s aftermath devastated the spinach industry and caused significant harm to the produce industry at large both financially and reputation-wise. What impact would an organized crisis intervention program have in assuaging the damage?

MARK: From my perspective, a significant impact. The spinach industry really didn’t have an organization like NWA or NWPB, which probably would have helped tremendously on damage control, working closely with government officials to isolate the spinach problem quicker and get the right information out quickly. If the industry had a good crisis management program in place, it could have alleviated the fallout from the problem. It wouldn’t have gotten rid of the problem because of the seriousness of the outbreak and the deaths, but would have gone a long way to at least minimize losses.

Q: Do you have examples of incidents within the watermelon industry that required strong crisis management skills?

MARK: Go back to cross-contamination issues we had with watermelon in Milwaukee in 2000. A young child died from E. coli poisoning after eating watermelon. It turned out to be cross-contamination at a restaurant where the cook had cut up some watermelon with a knife previously used on raw meat. The Milwaukee Health Department conducted an investigation. It was a terrible, unfortunate accident.

LESLIE: Mark and I both came on board following that event. From what I’ve seen in the files and from media coverage, the health department moved quickly in determining the source of the problem. I did not see tremendous evidence of mistakes in managing the incident. People on the Board were quick to get the word out that it was cross-contamination.

MARK: On August 1, 2000, immediately after the event occurred, the Milwaukee Sentinel released an erroneous article. “E. coli Traced to Watermelon” was the headline. It reported “…watermelon served on the salad bar of a south side Sizzler restaurant from July 14 to July 21 appears to be the source of the E. coli bacteria that killed a young girl and sickened 41 other people that Monday.”

LESLIE: One of the unfortunate things that happens with the Internet is that these stories never go away. One of these initial stories indicating watermelon as the source of the contamination ended up being picked up again and re-reported around Christmas time just this past year. Apparently a reporter writing about a new food safety incident went on the Internet to do research and picked up that first incorrect story. Through Internet news sources, Mark found the article that mentioned this Milwaukee incident from years and years ago falsely linking it to watermelon.

The danger with the Internet is that you can go back to find one bit of information about an outbreak but don’t necessarily find the whole story.

MARK: Shortly after, the City of Milwaukee Health Department and Wisconsin Department of Health linked the contamination to two Milwaukee Sizzler restaurants and isolated the problem to raw meat from the restaurant, manufactured by the company Excel. Lawsuits were initiated against Sizzler USA and Excel but none against the watermelon supplier because of a lot of work our staff did to get the word out that watermelon was only the vehicle for the contamination.

Even food poisoning attorneys I would describe as the equivalent of ambulance-chasers looking for victims admonished the watermelon industry of any responsibility in that case.

Q: Bean sprouts are considered a high risk item on the food safety Richter scale. Where does watermelon fit in the rankings?

LESLIE: Right behind eggplant, watermelon is considered one of the safest fruits and vegetables. The rind is a nice barrier to protect the interior fruit compared to other products sitting open in the field. What we’re trying to do is communicate to consumers how important it is to wash the exterior and wipe it off, and always use a clean knife when cutting it. We have never experienced an incident where the watermelon itself was the problem. The potential problem is with the surface. If a knife goes through it and any pathogen or bacteria is on the rind, of course it would come right through. That is why washing and wiping the rind is a real critical step.

Q: With the advent of the fresh-cut fruit industry, do you believe food safety issues are growing or lessening and why? How does this affect your strategies?

A: MARK: Many retailers have gone to centralized processing facilities for fresh-cut watermelon and pre-cut fruit mixes. These facilities are constantly scrutinized for food safety. The majority of watermelon is sold whole. While the product itself is safe, there is always concern of cross-contamination. This starts at the farm level and continues through the supply chain, whether it gets cut at a fresh-cut facility, at the retail level, in a restaurant, or in the consumer’s home. More exposure with a fresh-cut facility magnifies the chances of contamination versus selling it whole, as long as consumers are practicing safe handling. Rinsing watermelon under tap water goes a long way.

LESLIE: We pick up the guidelines from the Fight Bac program developed by experts. The safety program comes out of partnerships with a couple of federal organizations. Because we don’t have the scientific staff for appropriate protocol, we look to these experts. They recommend consumers wash all fruits and vegetables, and in the case of watermelon wipe the rind with a clean cloth. We’re not in a position to make any comments on FIT and these other washes’ health claims. Fight Bac is a great resource with a lot of consumer programs related to produce that appeals to wide audiences.

We are fortunate because of the nature of our product that food safety issues are not as challenging as in some commodities. Food safety communication plays an important role. Keeping it simple is a good philosophy, but it is also critical to be very open and transparent.

Q: How far along are you in accomplishing your crisis management goals?

LESLIE: We are about 95 percent of the way in finishing our enhanced communication plan. We are working with two communication crisis experts, helping us walk through this. They are both investigative reporters with T.V. and newspaper background in major markets including Miami, helping us understand how to communicate with the media if faced with a crisis.

Q: Tell us some key lessens you’ve learned.

LESLIE: On many occasions a crisis might arise, is heavily reported and then concluded and the communication to consumers stops. It might be overlooked that communication should go out to website media to alert consumers the danger is over and what this means in terms of buying and eating the product again. It is very important for us to send out information on what the health department found in clear terms that are understandable to consumers. This seems like a no-brainer, but is often not done in the flurry of the moment. The consultants helped us in formulating a core plan and check lists that need to be covered in case of a crisis, good solid thinking and planning to move through the process methodically if, heaven forbid, something happened. The FDA may have known a lab finding determined x, but what does that mean for product in the grocery store?

As far as the Internet goes for industry members, we are working to provide links on our site to food safety practices and resources.

We conducted one crisis training session for board members, with another one scheduled in November. All staff has gone through the crisis training program.

Safe food handling information has been sent out in press kits and in flyers for consumers to be distributed at different state promotional programs such as health fairs, parades, and watermelon festivals. Different state watermelon associations work with their state agriculture departments. Watermelon queens for each state and the national organization make a tremendous amount of event visits, including store openings where they cut up watermelon, pass out these flyers and provide food handling tips to consumers. The watermelon queens are trained on messaging and how to interact in interviews.

We are also conducting food safety consumer research and attending food safety seminars.

We’ve developed a crisis communication tip card for industry members with emergency numbers and important initial steps on how to handle a crisis that might come up. It is laminated like a business card for them to keep in their wallets.

Q: Are you integrating your efforts with other industry initiatives?

LESLIE: One thing we did is partnered with NWA and co-sponsored a food safety convention that brought in key people from the government and other industry organizations to help watermelon industry members understand what’s ahead of them. Retailers have higher food safety expectations now out of concern for their shoppers, and the retailers want to be sure what they are getting in their stores is safe.

MARK: We’re trying to support all efforts undertaken by Bob Morrissey and NWA, working directly with industry members to insure good food safety practices are complied with at the farm level. The importance of safe handling at food operators and communicating that to consumers is paramount to lessening incidents of foodborne illness related to watermelon.

We have to look at our mission and what our activities should be as the communication arm. We certainly are trying to work as closely as possible with NWA so that neither of us is duplicating the other.

A lot of our work is borne out of advice these consultants have shared on the proper things to do in a crisis based on principles. We feel the right thing to do is be very open in sharing information. This is in the best interest of consumers and industry members.

LESLIE: The handling of the Tylenol cyanide-tampering incident is a shining example. Johnson & Johnson made it a policy to be very transparent with consumers on exactly what was going on. In an unprecedented move, the company invited cameras and investigative reporters from 60 Minutes into one of the internal meetings to see how the board was handling the crisis. That course of action and openness was courageous and smart.

I don’t believe they ever caught the person who did it, and analysts predicted that the Tylenol brand was ruined forever. The fact that consumer confidence in Tylenol product could still come back is a powerful testament to the merits of how Johnson & Johnson handled the situation.

Q: Food safety investigations can often be complex undertakings. Couldn’t releasing information quickly cause confusion or create problems? For example, in Taco Bell’s rush to get back to business and calm consumer fears, the company falsely reported green onions as the source of an E. coli problem after a “presumptive positive” test result, taking swift action against the supplier, when in fact green onions ended up not being the source of the contamination.

MARK: This is an extremely important point. You have to be very cautious in anticipating or projecting what may or may not be the cause. Be sure consumers are getting accurate information. What’s important for everyone to remember is that in a crisis situation there is a victim or many victims. If a camera shows up on a farm, the Number One important thing to do is to express concern that someone became ill. Stay calm and speak to the facts at the moment. When people try to answer questions, they don’t have answers that get jumbled. If you don’t know something, say so versus ‘no comment,’ which sounds like you’re trying to hide something.

When organizations decide how they are going to put out messages regarding a food safety crisis, they need to know what is going on with consumers. Internet information is exchanged very quickly. Consumers are savvy and tend to be more skeptical than 20 years ago. They appreciate honesty and openness.

When United issued its initial call for uniform, mandatory, federal regulation, it got some push-back from commodities that weren’t known to have food safety problems. These commodities were concerned, reasonably enough, that they would fall under some kind of rigorous, and unnecessary, food safety scheme that would cost them money, expose them to liability, etc. — all to no point.

Although PMA joined in the call — and both associations made clear they were not looking for inspectors looking over the shoulder as every seed is planted — it is still a little difficult to envision what type of mandatory regulation will both be rigorous enough to prevent future food safety problems and flexible enough to not impose burdens where none are required.

It is also not clear what is the standard of safety that will be required. This interview is intriguing because it is very different than our conversations with leaders in the strawberry, tomato and almond industries. There, the food safety emphasis was heavily research and field-based. Here, the focus is on having a great crisis management plan. The reason is explained clearly:

…watermelon is considered one of the safest fruits and vegetables. The rind is a nice barrier to protect the interior fruit compared to other products sitting open in the field. What we’re trying to do is communicate to consumers how important it is to wash the exterior and wipe it off, and always use a clean knife when cutting it. We have never experienced an incident where the watermelon itself was the problem. The potential problem is with the surface. If a knife goes through it and any pathogen or bacteria is on the rind, of course it would come right through. That is why washing and wiping the rind is a real critical step.

Sometimes the problem is cross-contamination, and Mark and Leslie tell the story of how that has happened and sometimes been incorrectly reported as a problem with watermelon.

What is unclear at this point in time is what the FDA will ultimately mandate for all products in terms of field-based, transportation-based and retail-based contamination. Will it be considered acceptable to sell a product that will be perfectly safe — if the rind is thoroughly and appropriately washed? In other words, is it going to be acceptable to require consumers to play an active role in food safety?

The implications for many industries are vast. Many watermelon packing sheds are, well, just that, packing sheds. Perfectly adequate for putting a melon in a bin or box but not enclosed, air-conditioned, sanitary facilities designed to produce a melon with a clean surface.

The truth is that many of our industry packaging sheds — and this is certainly not strictly a watermelon issue — are designed for a different age when packers were thought to have different responsibilities.

Today, we doubt that, say, Marks and Spencer in the U.K. buys many American watermelons because, frankly, most of the packing facilities would not meet their standards. In many cases, they are not even enclosed buildings.

The watermelon industry deserves a lot of praise. Everything about this interview points to a leadership focused on getting ahead of the game. They are spending money, working hard, getting plans ready. It is an effort without fault.

Yet it also points out that much of the produce industry is still at a crossroads. A consultant from the food processing industry told to design a packing house for watermelons would probably focus on what changes in growing practices or surface treatments after harvest need to be done to eliminate pathogens from the surface of the melon. Then he would look for packing, some type of shrink wrap, perhaps, to make sure the melon would remain pathogen-free in transport and at retail — until the consumer opens the wrap. Then he would look for some type of labeling to make sure consumers knew how to open the wrap and avoid cross-contamination.

Maybe this won’t be where we wind up; it seems very far from a natural product just harvested from the earth. Yet, when Costco started having manufacturers label spinach with “Wash Before Using” messages, one of the questions was would that really matter? If the people got sick and died in the spinach crisis because they failed to adequately wash their spinach, would that really have made the FDA any less concerned?

The watermelon industry has done exemplary job preparing for a crisis. The question, for the watermelon industry and the produce trade at large is are we obligated to take actions to make sure that even if consumers are negligent, they are still safe?

Many thanks to Mark, Leslie and the National Watermelon Promotion Board for both sharing their work on food safety and for giving the trade an opportunity to reflect upon such important issues.

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