News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 22, 2012

Cantaloupe caution: Melon scare hits farmers

Despite illnesses, Valley consumers still have confidence in producers

OAKTOWN — Cantaloupe sales were down but not out Tuesday at Sandy Ridge Market, a large fresh fruit stand on U.S. 41 just over the Sullivan County line into Knox County.

National attention has turned to southwest Indiana cantaloupe growers amid reports that salmonella poisoning linked to the region’s cantaloupes has claimed the lives of two Kentuckians and hospitalized or sickened dozens more people in 20 states.

Indiana health officials on Friday issued an advisory telling Hoosiers to discard any cantaloupes grown in southwestern Indiana purchased on or after July 7. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also advised consumers to pitch any cantaloupe that may have come from that area.

While this has hurt sales at Sandy Ridge, it has not stopped them completely.

Sales have been “hurt a little” by the outbreak, said Mike Dodds, who was working at the market Tuesday afternoon. However, Dodds is very confident in the Sandy Ridge cantaloupe, which is grown nearby in Oaktown. He sliced a large, ripe cantaloupe and took a taste to prove his point.

“A lot of people are still buying them,” Dodds said. “We haven’t had any problems.”

Still, consumers are understandably worried, and cantaloupe sales are suffering. Some southwest Indiana growers have seen large retailers, such as Walmart, cancel whole orders.

“How can you not?” said Carol Hubbell of Linton when asked whether she had any concerns about cantaloupe. She and her husband, Jim, were shopping for fresh fruit at Sandy Ridge on their way home Tuesday afternoon.

The melons, including watermelon, sold at Sandy Ridge are grown at the small family farm owned by Sam and Patty Williams of Oaktown. Their melons were inspected in July and found to be fine, Patty said. In fact, she and her family have been eating the farm’s cantaloupe on a regular basis and are confident there is no salmonella contamination on their fruit.

“We have eaten them all summer and we’re fine,” Patty said. “I know it’s a scare, and I understand that.”

Some growers and sellers interviewed Wednesday speculated that the problem might be linked to how some cantaloupe is handled on its way to large retailers.

Williams advises anyone purchasing fruit of any kind to always wash it before cutting it or eating it. Salmonella can live on the skin of a cantaloupe, and contamination can take place when a knife passes through the skin and into the fruit, according to health officials.

Meanwhile, consumer advocacy groups are asking federal officials to release the name of an Indiana farm that recalled its cantaloupes as the outbreak was being investigated. However, health officials have provided no further information about the farm and say they are still working to pinpoint the exact source of the salmonella.

Indiana is one of the nation’s largest producers of cantaloupe, mostly grown in the state’s southwest, according to the USDA.

At Sandy Ridge, some customers seemed confident in the stand’s fruit Tuesday.

“We’ve been buying their stuff for over 30 years,” said Connie Shafer of Illinois, who was picking up a truckload of watermelons from Sandy Ridge and said she may also buy cantaloupe. “We buy from Sam and Patty because their [fruits] have always been good.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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