It’s the start of a new cantaloupe growing season in Colorado where producers will plant about 2 million acres of the melon with the hope that consumer confidence has rebounded after a Listeria outbreak last year sickened 146 people and killed 35.
Last fall, growers from the region met with Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar to discuss how to recover from the outbreak fallout.
The Rocky Ford region of Colorado is the birthplace of the U.S. cantaloupe industry. Farmers have been growing Rocky Ford cantaloupes – known for their especially sweet taste, for 120 years. Together with Pueblo county, Rocky Ford produces the bulk of the state’s cantaloupe which, in 2010, generated about $8 million in sales, according to the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service.
For more than a century, Colorado growers produced cantaloupe without incident. Then, in September 2011, a Listeria outbreak that eventually swept through 28 states was linked to Jensen Farms, located about 84 miles east of Rocky Ford. Although the farm was not located in the Rocky Ford region, stickers on the tainted melon they produced read “Sweet Rocky Fords.”
The source of the outbreak was linked to unsanitary conditions on the farm including standing water in the packing shed and equipment that was difficult to clean. Despite these conditions, the farm received high marks from a third-party auditor just before the outbreak.
The incident prompted an investigation into the third-party auditing system that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses to oversee growing and processing facilities. The findings, published in a report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, showed that third-party auditors often don’t conduct audits according to FDA guidelines.
Going forward, “the Colorado Department of Agriculture will administer third party audits on those growers participating in the grower’s association,” Christi Lightcap, a spokeswoman for the department said in an email. “Colorado State University will also be meeting with each cantaloupe grower in the Rocky Ford region to provide educational resources. Additional training and educational opportunities have also been coordinated. The growers have been proactive in their approach to additional food safety measures,” she said.