Farmers See Potential for Food-Scare Repeat Federal Health Agency's Report Led to Recent False Alarm on Food Poisoning, Growers Say. CANTALOUPE CONTROVERSY

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A NEEDLESS scare two months ago over food poisoning could happen again, farmers say.

Cantaloupe sales ground to a halt on Aug. 16, a day after the media reported that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had linked an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning to consumption of the melons. The public got the false impression that there was a current danger and that the melons themselves were to blame.

"We had enormous economic damage without any medical justification," says John McClung, vice president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. The incident was "extremely unfortunate and has clear, ominous overtones for the produce industry."

The CDC has promised to consult the Western Growers Association before releasing potentially disruptive information in the future. WGA members grow, pack, and ship most of the fresh fruit and vegetables in Arizona and California.

But the CDC refused to adopt other practices that growers requested and rejects responsibility for the false alarm.

The federal health agency denies that the scare hurt melon sales much. Instead, CDC news director William Grigg says, farmers overproduced. "Here was an industry that was already in trouble, and {the scare} was just a little cherry on the top."

Cantaloupe growers acknowledge that high yields depressed prices, but the farmers still attribute tens of millions of dollars in losses to the scare alone.

All in all, growers are "not very confident" that last summer's incident won't be repeated, says Barbara Buck, a WGA spokeswoman.

The CDC is an Atlanta-based branch of the United States Department of Health and Human Services with 6,700 employees and a budget of $1.4 billion. One of its tasks is epidemiology - the tracking of a disease outbreak back to its source.

That job is difficult with salmonella food poisoning (41,000 US cases in 1989) because experts say that just 10 varieties of the bacteria account for the vast majority of infections. It's impossible to know which cases to lump together for investigation.

Sometimes, though, an increase is seen in cases involving a rare variety of the bacteria. When that happens, epidemiologists can interview those who fell ill and a control group to contrast what they ate.

Last summer an increase in cases of rare Salmonella poona occurred in 23 states and Canada. To epidemiologists, it was an "outbreak," although the 400 cases still would represent less than 1 percent of the 1989 total.

Four separate investigations by state health officials found that the likely common food item was cantaloupe (See story, below).

Virtually every case involved public food servers such as restaurants, caterers, and nursing homes. The Food and Drug Administration issued a "cantaloupe advisory" on July 3 to remind food servers of proper practices: Wash melons before cutting, use a clean knife, refrigerate the slices, and don't let them sit out for more than four hours.

Six weeks later, the CDC summarized three state investigations in its "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," a technical publication written for doctors and public health officials. The CDC considered the section on salmonella to be "absolutely routine."

Advance copies were released to the media on Aug 15. The CDC prefaced the state summaries with its conclusion that they indicated "a large nationwide outbreak related to consumption of cantaloupes."

Many growers were angry with the Associated Press (AP) for spreading the story. (United Press International also covered the story.) Robert Byrd, who wrote the AP story, is one of the reporters who regularly culls the CDC report for news. He has filed hundreds of stories based on it over the past six years.

"I'm a little surprised at all the attention that this particular story got, especially since the report - and my coverage, I thought - made pretty clear that the outbreak was waning at the time the news came out," Mr. …