The few Colorado farmers who grow the same brand of cantaloupe implicated in last year’s Listeria outbreak — the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in decades — are falling into line with growing and packing reforms that originated in California.
The California-centered U.S. cantaloupe industry is bending other growing areas to its will without anything more than the powers of persuasion.
John Salazar, Colorado’s commission of agriculture, has enlisted Colorado’s growers who want to carry on the “Rocky Ford” brand of cantaloupes into a new $150,000 state program. The money will go for enforcement and marketing.
The growers have formed the Rocky Ford Growers Association and, for the first time since melon growing began along the Arkansas River in the 1880s, they’ve trademarked the name “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe.”
More importantly, Colorado cantaloupe growers will accept twice-a-year safety audits to be conducted by state agricultural inspectors.
The first state inspection will be announced, and designed to help growers connect their procedures with the new standards. Some time in the middle of the harvest season, the second audit will be unannounced and aimed at ensuring compliance.
Colorado State University is working with “Rocky Ford” growers to make sure cleaning and cooling practices do not bring about the sort of Listeria growth that went on at Jensen Farms last season.
Jensen Farms is 100 miles east of Colorado’s cantaloupe center — the small town of Rocky Ford. The Food and Drug Administration said both equipment and cantaloupes in Jensen Farms’ packing shed were contaminated with Listeria. The firm was blamed for a Listeria outbreak that sickened at least 146 in 28 states. There were 36 known deaths.
With almost one-third of those deaths in Colorado, only the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School was a larger mass casualty event for the state in the last half-century. Thirteen were killed in that high school massacre.
By going out to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the first cantaloupe seeds be punched into the mulching plastic designed to keep the melons high and dry, Commissioner Salazar attracted good press coverage for an effort that really amounts to hitting the reset button for the state’s $10 million industry.
Other safety steps include:
– Forced air cooling to reduce the field temperature of a harvested cantaloupe that might be 90 degrees or higher down to 40 degrees inside of three hours.
– Switching from a sanitizing pool to a rapid pass-through system that keeps chlorination rinse moving.
– Going with a “seed-to-store” tracking system to isolate any problems down to the box.
– “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes will be traceable by the consumer to the farm where they are grown with a Smartphone code.
– Growers are attending mandatory training and agricultural practices meetings.
The Rocky Ford Growers Association is starting out small — on a total of about 500 acres. In past years, more than 2,000 acres were dedicated to cantaloupes. Only when consumers come back will more acreage be dedicated to more melons.
Knapp Farms, Hanagan Farms and Hirakata Farms — all members of the new association —have also promised Salazar they will participate in “Know Your Farmer” days at local grocery stores.
Now, the only cantaloupes that will be allowed under the Rocky Ford trademark will be those grown by association members in Otero and Crowley counties. Jensen Farms is in Prowers County on the Kansas border and is not expected to grow any cantaloupes this season.
Numerous outbreak victims or their survivors and families are suing the family-owned Jensen Farms.
The good agricultural practices (GAP) adopted by Colorado were developed in January at the behest of California cantaloupe growers in meetings led by the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis.
While 25 to 30 Colorado cantaloupe growers were hurt by the outbreak traced back to Jensen Farms, so too were the volume growers centered in California and Arizona. At the time of deadly outbreak, they had more than 40,000 acres dedicated to cantaloupes worth more than $200 million.
The resulting scare from the outbreak cut into consumer demand across the board. California cantaloupe growers, who have never been responsible for an outbreak of foodborne illness, had no choice but to lead the way toward safer melons.
In California, cantaloupe growers used amendments to the state marketing order to impose the new regulations. Inland, they’re mostly the result of the same sort of persuasion that has worked in Colorado.