Colorado cantaloupes return; growers push safety

Associated Press Modified: July 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm •  Published: July 13, 2012
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GLENDALE, Colo. (AP) — Nearly a year after the nation's deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in more than two decades, Colorado cantaloupes are back in supermarkets.

Farmers near the town of Rocky Ford are going on the offensive to restore the fruit's reputation a year after melons from one of the area's farms caused a nationwide listeria outbreak. They have banded together to trademark Rocky Ford melons and fund $800,000 worth of safety upgrades to prevent future outbreaks, but they must convince buyers that the melons are safe.

Last fall's listeria outbreak traced to Jensen Farms in eastern Colorado was blamed for the deaths of 30 people. It infected 146 people in 28 states with one of four strains of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"When everything happened, after 125 years of growing a safe product, people were so upset," said Nathan Knapp, a Rocky Ford melon grower who drove to a Denver-area supermarket Friday to see the cantaloupes go on sale.

Some farmers who had raised melons for decades decided to stop growing Rocky Fords this year. Only about a third of the land devoted to growing the cantaloupes last year is now growing this year's crop, according to the USDA's Farm Service Agency.

"Quite a few people just dropped out," Knapp said. "They had no interest anymore in dealing with the risk."

But Knapp and a few dozen other farmers in Otero and Crowley counties decided to band together to restore confidence in Rocky Fords, melons with a distinct sweetness thanks to the area's hot, sunny days and cold nights. First the farmers patented the name Rocky Ford — an important step because the source of the outbreak was 90 miles from Rocky Ford but was using the name.

Then the farmers overhauled their production practices to restore public confidence. They hired a full-time food safety manager to monitor melon-picking and started paying the seasonal pickers by the hour, not by the amount of cantaloupes picked. The farmers also built a new central packing shed where all Rocky Ford-labeled melons will be washed with soap and a chlorine oxide, then rinsed with well water tested for contamination.

After being washed, the melons will be cooled to reduce condensation and then packed into boxes labeled with codes traceable to the fields where the melons were grown. The boxes will be packed with slips that interested shoppers can scan using a smartphone to read about where their melons originated.

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