Martori adopts new food-safety program for cantaloupes

SCOTTSDALE, AZ — This spring, Martori Farms, headquartered here, is fully activating a new type of food-safety program for packing cantaloupes.

The process, which employs a hot water shower to clean pathogens from the melons' rough skin, looks to address critical food-safety issues that were ultimately related to the crevices in cantaloupe rinds.Steve-Martori-JrStephen Martori Jr.

Stephen Martori Sr., president of the company, said his firm is one of two companies using this technology.

Martori built this hot water facility in its Aguila, AZ, packinghouse. Martori grows cantaloupes not only in Aguila but also in two other large farms, including one near Yuma, AZ. The firm is in the market seven months a year, shipping melons from May 1 through November.

The hot water shower was developed, beginning several years ago, through close cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Eastern Regional Agricultural Research Center in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyndmoor, PA. The research led to Martori's system, which was commercially implemented in late April for the firm's 2013 season launch.

The water shower lasts for approximately 20 seconds on each cantaloupe, which is rotated during the process. Targeting a water temperature of 162 degrees F, this brief hot water bath pasteurizes the skin, but is brief enough to avoid heating or injuring the cantaloupe's flesh.

Martori Farms generally plans 1,000 in-house lab samples a season in its packinghouse. It has customers that want lab samples on the packingline of their specific orders.

Martori Farms is Primus audited on its food-safety program and is GSFI certified.

"I believe all of the industry should use a global system that is internationally recognized," he said. "It's a very stringent system."

Martori noted, "We are not trying to make food safety proprietary." This means he is openly sharing his data and techniques on cantaloupe food safety. "We don't think [keeping progressive secrets] would be the right thing to do."

About the cantaloupe business, he said, "If we have additional outbreaks, we aren't going to have an industry. We would be done."

During its seven-month shipping season, Martori completely sanitizes its packingline after each shift even though all packingline belts utilize a continuous belt-sanitizing system.

In the peak of the coming Arizona cantaloupe season, Martori will pack more than 35,000 cantaloupes an hour, or approximately 400,000 melons a day.

"We are one of the largest melon grower-shippers in the country," Martori said.

Cantaloupe accounts for 75 percent of the melon production at the firm, which produces more than 7,000 acres of melons, including 700 acres of watermelons.

Mini-watermelons and honeydew are also grown, packed and shipped by Martori. Among the honeydew offerings is its exclusive variety in North America, the Lemondrop.

Coming from Syngenta seed, the Lemondrop is a Galia-type melon that has a greenish-white flesh and a rind similar to that of a cantaloupe, but smoother.

Dewlicious is a golden honeydew-type variety offered by Martori. It has a very small seed cavity and is desirable because of its coloring. If the skin has any green, the fruit is not mature, so selection of a very high-Brix, yellow-gold fruit in the field is very predictable, according to Martori.

Martori noted that smooth-skinned melons — notably watermelon and honeydew — "have not had the issues with foodborne illness that cantaloupes have had."

This relates to harmful pathogens having a place to hide on traditional cantaloupe rinds. He added that for cantaloupes "the outbreak concerns about recalls can happen at any point in the distribution chain.

"We lose control after it leaves our plant," he said. "The biggest challenge is at retail, where consumers touch the fruit."

He noted that in certain European retail markets customers wear disposable plastic gloves to select produce. At Martori "we do all we reasonably can to eliminate pathogens. Our customers recognize that."

Martori said 80 percent of his melon sales are to major retailers in North America. Most of the remainder of his business goes to wholesale market customers and cut fruit processors.

The "Kandy" brand is used on all of Martori's products.

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