In February 2018, the rockmelon industry was shaken to its core by a listeria outbreak that claimed the lives of six Australians. Australian Farmers’ Andrea Martinello sat down with Dianne Fullelove of the Australian Melons Association to find out how growers are faring.
To help get the rockmelom industry back on its feet, this week the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, announced a grant of $100,200 to assist the sector to re-establish overseas markets.
“What happened earlier this year was absolutely tragic,” Mr Littleproud said.
“The human cost was huge for those who ate those melons and for the families and friends of those who died.
“The outbreak gutted the industry hurting farmers thousands of kilometres from the source.
“Industry estimates it cost about $60-million because growers couldn’t sell their fruit and had to leave it on the vine to rot.”
Following the outbreak, rockmelon sales plummeted an estimated 90% when the two largest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths removed the fruit from their shelves. Export sales also dropped dramatically.
At this stage, five months on, we are estimating sales to be 50% below, what they usually are at this time of year.
The outbreak was sourced to fruit harvested from one farm in New South Wales. However, all rockmelon growers, inclduing those from as far away as northern Western Australia have had their bottom lines impacted.
According to Dianne, the food safety systems in the Australian melon industry are world class. Despite this, the industry is taking further precautions to guarantee systems are implemented correctly.
“We have to regain confidence that rockmelon is a good fruit to eat,” Dianne said.
“We have introduced a levy-funded project that provides one-on-one assistance to rockmelon growers with microbiologists to thoroughly go over their systems and ensure functionality is at peak capacity.”
This project provides farmers with easy access to vital industry information and to receive unbiased advice from the microbiologists whose sole interest is to uphold excellent food safety practices.
Dianne said the industry had a lot of ground to make up with consumers. To do this, she said a portion of the research and development levy contributed by growers, should be transferred to marketing. However, at this stage due to complex statutory arrangements, it is not possible (in the short term anyway) to do so.
“Marketing is the biggest issue we are facing at the moment.
“We don’t have any funding for marketing at all, which is a real problem for the industry and growers are becoming increasingly frustrated,” Dianne said.
“Growers are paying their levies and are upset they can’t make the switch from R&D to marketing.
“The frustration is palpable.”
The Government funding this week, will help to get rockmelons back into international markets and to, in particualr, re-establish relations with Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
“We need to gain back their (markets) confidence and this is what we are working hard to do,” Dianne said.