By the time the first recall was announced Wednesday, major retail chains had already removed all Colorado-grown cantaloupes from their shelves in the face of a deadly, multistate outbreak of Listeria infection.
Two days after a public warning linked Colorado’s popular “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes to more than a dozen illnesses, one grower in the Arkansas River Valley agreed to recall its product.
By then, nearly all Colorado-grown cantaloupes — an $8 million crop — had disappeared from the produce shelves of major grocers like Safeway, King Soopers and Whole Foods. They acted after hearing the warning, not waiting for the recall.
In Colorado, though, you could find “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes for sale if you drove the Highway 50 corridor, which parallels the Arkansas River between Pueblo in the west and Holly in the east on the Kansas border. Many roadside stands remain open even though traffic is down after Labor Day.
A sales clerk at Manzanola, CO said customers were not concerned about the “Listeria scare.” Growers in the area are harvesting the last of this year’s crop, hoping they can beat the region’s first freeze.
But Jensen Farms, a third-generation family farm in Holly, CO, said on Wednesday that it was voluntarily recalling shipments of Rocky Ford whole cantaloupe, adding that it is working with the state of Colorado and the Food and Drug Administration to inform consumers.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of Wednesday at least 22 Listeria infections, including one death, in seven states have been tied to cantaloupes from Colorado. New Mexico health officials said it is likely that 10 cases there, including three fatalities, are part of the outbreak.
The CDC said the confirmed cases of listeriosis include 11 in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma. At least 15 of the ill people have had symptoms so serious their required hospitalization.
Investigators with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said lab tests detected Listeria moncytogenes on cantaloupe collected from grocery stores and from melon in a case patient’s home, and that its traceback investigation pointed to cantaloupes grown in the Rocky Ford area.
Wednesday the FDA said traceback information from case patients narrowed the likely source to a single grower. “That producer is Jensen Farms,” the FDA said. “Although the investigation is ongoing, no other Rocky Ford cantaloupe producer has been found in common in the Colorado traceback.”
Because Listeria is generally not associated with fresh produce — this is the first time a Listeria outbreak has been linked to whole cantaloupe — the FDA said its newly formed Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network is working with the CDC and other regulatory partners to determine where the contamination took place and what circumstances might have contributed to contamination.
Cantaloupes can be susceptible to bacterial contamination, though more typically from Salmonella, because they’re grown on the ground, where they may come in contact with animal feces, contaminated soil or contaminated irrigation or rain water.
And because bacteria can so easily lodge in the melon’s rough and porous rind, cantaloupes are also at risk of contamination by unsanitary equipment or wash or cooling water during packing and handling.
Jensen Farms said the whole cantaloupes in question were shipped between July 29 and September 10, 2011 to Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
The whole cantaloupes have a green and white sticker that reads: Product of USA- Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford-Cantaloupe or a gray, yellow and green sticker that reads: Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords.
The cantaloupe may be labeled: Colorado Grown, Distributed by Frontera Produce, USA, Pesticide Free, Jensenfarms.com, Sweet Rocky Fords.
The cantaloupes are packed in cartons that are labeled: Frontera Produce, www.fronteraproduce.com or with Frontera Produce, Rocky Ford Cantaloupes. Both cartons also include: Grown and packed by Jensen Farms Granada, CO and Shipped by Frontera Produce LTD, Edinburg, Texas.
Not all the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker. If a whole cantaloupe is unlabeled, consumers should contact the retail store where it was purchased for sourcing information.
The cantaloupes should be thrown away, not eaten, Jensen Farms said in its news release.
Ryan Jensen, partner at the family-run operation, added, “Jensen Farms continues to stay committed to the highest levels of food safety and maintains many third party safety audits, as we have for many years. We continually look for ways to enhance our protocol.”
Consumers with questions may contact Jensen Farms via email at email@example.com or by phone, 1-800-267-4561, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. MT.