Rockmelon farmers call for answers after lethal listeria outbreak

Riverina rockmelon farmers are demanding answers, following a listeria outbreak they say has crippled the industry.

It follows a nation-wide recall, issued on February 28 for rockmelons on supermarket shelves between February 9 and 23. 

The call came after two elderly Victorian residents and two elderly people from NSW died, after consuming the infected fruit. The outbreak affected a further 17 elderly residents across the country.

The contamination was linked to a farm at Nericon, near Griffith, with the grower voluntarily ceasing production on February 23.

The name of the grower was revealed as Rombola Family Farms on Tuesday.

All affected fruit has since been removed from the domestic and international supply chain.

But despite being given the all clear from the NSW Food authority, farmers with clean fruit have had to dump and and spray out their healthy crops, while they await the findings of an investigation. 

As a result, the industry has suffered an estimated 90 per cent reduction in rockmelon sales across the board and clean fruit on shelves has been devalued. 

One Riverina rockmelon farmer – not linked to the listeria outbreak – Jamie Schembri said sales reductions were only part of the problem. 

He said growers were staring down the barrel of a season without profits and an unfairly damaged reputation.

Mr Schembri said being left in the dark was frustrating, especially when other product recalls publicly specified which brand was affected. 

With everyday residents unsure about listeria or the strict processes growers followed to eliminate it on farm, Mr Schembri said farmers and agents were being unfairly tainted with the same brush.

“Sanitising and cleaning processes are dealt with on farm,” Mr Schembri said. “The processes follow strict requirements at all levels.” 

He said no farmer had completed their harvest, so there would be no one who had escaped the aftermath of the outbreak. 

He said he felt the investigation had not been handled fairly, with residents and farmers now demanding answers.

“We don’t know what is going on,” Mr Schembri said. “Other farms have been investigated and all been cleared, but until the investigation is complete, we can’t speculate about what happened.”

Despite several attempts, the NSW Food authority was unable to be reached for comment.