By Michele F. Mihaljevich
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The USDA has proposed changes to watermelon grade standards based on recommendations from the National Watermelon Association (NWA). The public comment period on the revisions ends May 10.
If approved by the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), new standards would go into effect for tolerances, size and various defects. The revisions would ensure the standards align with current marketing trends and provide a common language for trade of watermelons, AMS said. As a part of the process, AMS has also issued four new watermelon visual aids.
The NWA petitioned USDA to make the changes in October 2019. In November 2020, the organization approved the proposed revisions. They were published in the Federal Register March 11.
Watermelon grade standards haven’t been updated since 2006, said Jordan Carter, who chaired the NWA’s grade standards committee. She is also director of sales and marketing for Leger & Son, Inc., a watermelon grower in Cordele, Ga. The visual library was last updated in the 1990s.
“The standards needed to be modernized,” Carter explained. “In looking at the standards and the visual library, they were outdated. We needed to help the industry and help ourselves.”
Over the years, varieties have changed, as have sizes purchased by consumers, she said. In the 2000s, watermelons averaged about 25 pounds. Today, most major chain stores are requesting watermelons of 15-18 pounds.
The current standards aren’t helping growers, Carter noted. “Growers were suffering because of rejections (at the retail level) because the standards weren’t representative of today’s varieties and sizes. These changes can only help the grower. They’re only going to make the industry better.”
After watermelons are delivered to distribution centers for retail outlets, they’re examined by trained inspectors, she said. “The current standards didn’t fully represent what we saw in the fields, what was being rejected. That was our fault. If we’re going to help ourselves, the inspectors need to have the best information.”
Among the revisions proposed by AMS is the removal of the separate tolerance for Anthracnose, a fungal disease. It would be included in the decay tolerance in U.S. No. 1 and No. 2 grades. The current 3 percent tolerance for Anthracnose at shipping point would be removed, as would the 5 percent tolerance for Anthracnose en route or at destination. The tolerance for decay would be changed to a total tolerance of 1 percent at shipping point and 2 percent for en route or at destination for Anthracnose and decay.
For size standards, AMS has proposed lowering the average weights of watermelons to 10-34 pounds from the current 20-42 pounds.
The agency also seeks to make sunburn a permanent defect. “The current standard lists sunburn as a condition defect, primarily based on the past practice of shipping watermelons in open top trailers,” AMS said. “Today, watermelons are generally shipped in enclosed trailers. Melons generally only have sunburn due to exposure in the field.”
AMS has proposed basing the scoring guides for sunburn, hail, rind worm injury, scars and transit rubs on a15-pound watermelon rather than a 25 pound. It wants to base the scoring guide for hollow heart on any size melon rather than one of 25 pounds. The agency wants to limit the scoring of rind worm injury on the ground spot.
Carter said she expects the revisions to be approved. The changes, if approved, could become effective by late summer, according to the NWA.
To comment on the proposed revisions, visit https://www.federalregister.gov/