Greenough melon grower Carole Metcalf says after the rockmelon-borne listeria outbreak in NSW she has been forced to let her crop rot in her paddock. (ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Joanna Prendergast )
Thousands of rockmelons have been left to rot in paddocks near Geraldton on the Western Australian coast, record low prices and lost markets mean they are simply not worth picking.
Grower Carol Metcalf said the rows of rotting melons were the result of the listeria outbreak on a rockmelon farm more than 3,500 kilometres away in New South Wales.
The listeria outbreak, that is currently crippling the WA industry began on February 19 this year and claimed six lives.
Carol and Brett Metcalfe from Coastal Plains Produce have been growing melons for 25 years, they’ve weathered highs and lows in the rockmelon industry, but have never had to leave produce to rot.
Mrs Metcalfe said they were about half way through the picking period when the listeria outbreak occurred.
“We were hoping that being on the other side of the country, and an independent grower, that the business would have been alright,” she said.
“My analogy is if a beer company had killed a few people with beer, people wouldn’t stop drinking beer, they’d go to the other company.
“But because melons aren’t identified individually, it’s pretty hard for people to trust that you’re doing the right thing.”
Carol Metcalfe stands in her packing shed. It would usually be a hive of activity at this time of year. (ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt: Joanna Prendergast)
Supermarkets change requirements
Mrs Metcalfe said after the listeria outbreak, consumer demand plummeted and supermarkets changed their requirements of growers.
Approximately a month ago she was told supermarkets required growers to comply to a range of new measures such as measuring and recording chlorine levels in water every 15 minutes, to requiring a hairnet in the packing shed.
“We had done all our protocols for Freshcare, which is minimum residue levels, listeria, salmonella and E.Coli testing in December,” Mrs Metcalfe said.
Freshcare is a third-party industry on-farm assurance program that helps ensures farmers produce to both legislative requirements and customer specifications.
“We had our audit from Freshcare on January 11,” she said.
“Coles were not putting product on the shelf because they were going out to do [their own] audits — and we haven’t seen them.
“And unless you had that visit from them you were not allowed to supply.
“Our agent is telling us we can’t supply Woolies or Coles at this stage.
“I’d like to see it being science-based and driven by the industry instead of being driven by the retailer.”
Unable to find market for their produce, the Metcalfes have been forced to leave many of their melons to rot, and will eventually plough them back into the soil.
“The other problem is the supermarket chains have different specifications between the two [supermarket chains],” Mrs Metcalfe said.
“They’re counterintuitive — one will want you using one thing, one will want you doing the other thing.”
A rockmelon nearly ready for picking in a WA paddock. Sales have dropped and prices have fallen. (ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt: Joanna Prendergast)
Inspections in the pipeline
Mrs Metcalfe said over the past month she had requested the supermarkets come and visit and inspect her property several times.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Coles said rockmelon supply had not yet recommenced in WA as local suppliers continue to implement recommended improvements to meet Coles’ standards.
He said Coles would visit the Meltcalfes next week to assess processes on her farm.
“Coles is visiting rockmelon farms and packing sheds across WA to monitor improvements being made to meet these standards, focusing initially on direct suppliers,” he said.
“We look forward to having rockmelon back in stores for our WA customers as soon as possible.”
The Metcalfes have about three weeks left of their season.
In a statement, Woolworths said it was working with growers.
“We are committed to working closely with our West Australian growers to ensure the rockmelons on our shelves are safe for our customers to consume,” the statement said.
“We intend to assess all rockmelon growers that supply our stores prior to their season starting and will continue to work with local growers to deliver safe produce that meets our customers and regulators needs and expectations.”