With the 26-state outbreak of listeriosis likely to become the most deadly foodborne illness outbreak in modern U.S. history, it might be understandable if Colorado told its cantaloupe growers just to plant something else next year.

Only about 2,300 acres — just 3.6 square miles up and down he Arkansas River — are dedicated to growing “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes. While cantaloupes have been grown in this area for more than 100 years, the land could be used for growing crops other than this short-season (July to August) melon.

But instead of cutting the state’s losses, Colorado officials say they are going to help growers mount a recovery plan for the Rocky Ford brand and the local community has started a push back against all the bad publicity it’s been getting.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar says the state is going to provide marketing and regulatory oversight for cantaloupe growers next year in an effort to restore consumer confidence.  

The heart of Colorado’s cantaloupe growing area — from Fowler through Rocky Ford to LaJunta —marks the eastern boundary of the state’s third congressional district, which Salazar represented until his defeat in 2010. This is the area most associated with the Rocky Ford cantaloupe, and growers there are quick to point out none of their melons were tainted. 

The Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes originated two counties further east in the Colorado/Kansas border town of Granada at the Jensen Farms packing house.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found outbreak strains of Listeria on equipment and cantaloupes in the packing house.  

Jensen Farms also labeled its cantaloupes as “Rocky Ford” and as organic, and accounted for about 40 percent of the state’s total cantaloupe production.

The state Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University report they are in the preliminary stages of creating a cantaloupe program that would involve:

– Criteria for labeling, including the use of the Rocky Ford label and possibly a “Colorado Proud” mark.

– Safety training and possible use of third-party audits to make sure safety programs are followed.

– Laboratory testing before harvest to make sure the crop is pathogen-free.

While cantaloupe growers are meeting with state officials to discuss how the recovery plan might work, a push back has started over the unwelcome attention being given to the area.

In an Oct. 25 editorial, the Pueblo Chieftain responded to congressional demands for documents and a possible hearing.  

“Enough already. A Food and Drug Administration investigation showed that not one farm in the Lower Valley produced tainted cantaloupes,” the editorial said.  “The only source of listeria was at the Jensen operation’s packing shed near Granada.”

“Even as all of the farms that grow ‘Rocky Ford cantaloupes’ were found to be listeria-free, national media reports have left the impression that Rocky Ford cantaloupes are unsafe, while the opposite is true.”

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-CO, who now represents the area, says there is no need for a Congressional investigation of the outbreak.  He says it “does a disservice to Colorado agriculture.”

State Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, expressed his objections to U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, D-CO and Henry Waxman, D-CA, saying a congressional probe is ill-advised, premature and will “only add fuel to a controversy that has already damaged Colorado agriculture.”

Grantham said DeGette and Waxman were guilty of “political grandstanding.”

With 28 deaths and at least another 105 victims still recovering, the cantaloupe-related outbreak is already the most deadly in 25 years. While it is unlikely that any of the Jensen Farms cantaloupes remain in circulation, the lengthy incubation period for Listeria means that the outbreak isn’t over yet.