Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers reeling from listeria hysteria

 It’s not hysteria when 21 people die from cantaloupe.

And the most important point for cantaloupe growers struggling with reduced sales linked to a listeria outbreak happens about halfway through a Denver Post article today:

“A federal report, expected in the next few days, may clarify the outlook, said Mike Bartolo, a Colorado State University vegetable crop specialist based in Rocky Ford. Meanwhile, CSU has been designing experiments to determine the best protocol for food safety after the Holly contamination.”

"Until we’ve got all the facts, we don’t know how to attack it," said Michael Hirakata, whose family has grown cantaloupe here for more than 80 years and supplies major buyers such as King Soopers. "I don’t want to go forward without knowing how to prevent this from happening."

In the wake of what some in Rocky Ford call "listeria hysteria," growers wrestle with how to reclaim their good name.

Experts traced the bacterial strain to a farm nearly 90 miles and two counties away in the town of Holly. But that operation labeled its cantaloupe with the Rocky Ford name — a practice that rankles some locals — and health officials initially warned the public away from any melon produced in this sweet slice of the Arkansas Valley.

Talk has begun anew about precisely defining the growing region and vigorously guarding the Rocky Ford name, whether by trying to trademark it or create a certification for its melons. Disagreement among farmers over boundaries could be an obstacle.

Grower Bill Sackett, who owns a produce stand on the east end of town, took out a paper bag and scribbled a crude map. Then he circled an area bordered by Fowler on the west and La Junta on the east — his definition of where true Rocky Ford cantaloupe originate.

"Myself, I’m going to advertise with that circle," said Sackett, who opposes any certification process that brings more government into the mix. "And I’m gonna tell people that they’re good, they’re safe and they’re nutritious."

Growers already employ practices designed to prevent foodborne illness, but the listeria outbreak could trigger a campaign to document and publicize those measures to reinforce public trust.

Good. Market food safety. And compile the data to back up any marketing claims.

Listeria found in Colorado farm’s cantaloupe, on packing equipment; 4 dead, 31 sick

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today it found Listeria monocytogenes in samples of Jensen Farms’ Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe taken from a Denver-area store and on samples taken from equipment and cantaloupe at the Jensen Farms’ packing facility. Tests confirmed that the Listeria monocytogenes found in the samples matches one of the three different strains of Listeria monocytogenes associated with the multi-state outbreak of listeriosis.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control updated the official outbreak count to 35 persons infected with the outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes, including four deaths, from 10 states.

Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes a week ago in response to the multi-state outbreak of listeriosis. Cantaloupes from other farms in Colorado, including farms in the Rocky Ford growing area, have not been linked to this outbreak.

Jensen Farms is helping federal and state authorities determine how the cantaloupes became contaminated.

The FDA’s root-cause investigation and environmental assessment includes the on-site expertise of FDA and state of Colorado microbiologists, environmental health specialists, veterinarians and investigative officers. The experts conducting the assessment will analyze the evidence, determine the most likely cause of contamination and identify potential controls to help prevent contamination in the future. The FDA will use the findings to help inform agency policy regarding Listeria and produce food safety best practices.

Jensen Farms shipped the recalled cantaloupes from July 29 through Sept. 10 to at least 17 states with possible further distribution.

For additional information about the recalled products, including product labels:

A table of cantaloupe- (or rock melon) related outbreaks is available at

Rocky Ford farmers: listeria in Colorado cantaloupes wasn’t us, was someone else, no one here is sick

The director of the Farm Service Agency in Otero and Crowley counties told the Peublo Chieftain an ongoing investigation into ties to a listeria outbreak and Rocky Ford cantaloupes will show that the contamination did not come from the Lower Arkansas Valley.

Chuck Hanagan said, "Everybody eats this (Rocky Ford) cantaloupe. Heck, the field workers that are picking it and all the farmers are eating it every day. If it’s contaminated here, why isn’t anyone sick here?" he asked. "It doesn’t make sense to me. … Somebody in the handling system may be to blame. They may be putting it in contaminated trucks, unloading it in a warehouse with contaminated handling . . . There are several other ways it could be contaminated on that other end.”

Mike Bartolo, an extension agent for Colorado State University, said the state health department’s focus on Rocky Ford is like "a dagger through the heart" for the agricultural area, which has a melon as its mascot.

Farmers are convinced the listeria problem is in warehousing, trucking or other distribution areas, Bartolo said, because melons are cooled and washed in a chlorine bath before shipping. Listeria occurs naturally in many soil conditions, and growing and production methods are in place to keep contamination out of the food chain, he said.

The growers are frustrated with the state health department announcements that seemed like an "undiscriminating nuclear bomb" rather than zeroing in on a specific problem, he added.

State health officials said they are working with federal health agencies to test all possible contact points for the melons, including distribution centers and the farms.

In July and August 1991, more than 400 people in the western U.S. were sickened by salmonella poisoning that was traced to cantaloupes and melon growers throughout the West paid the price.

"I remember there were a number of farmers who lost their melon crops over that scare," recalled Frank Sobolik, the former Colorado State University Extension Agent for Pueblo County. "That time, the suspicion was the tainted melons were coming up from West Texas."

Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, a food biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins (left, sorta as shown), said contamination investigations can end that way — a dead end that just points towards a general region. That’s what happened in the summer of 1991. The hunt for the salmonella-tainted melon source ended without finding the source. All the evidence was either eaten or thrown away.

A table of cantaloupe- (or rock melon) related outbreaks is available at

4 dead, 15 ill from listeria in whole cantaloupe; Rocky Ford farmer says ‘this is silly’

At least 15 people have been infected with the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, in what officials are calling the first listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe in the U.S.

State and local public health officials have interviewed most of the patients and discovered that the majority of them consumed whole cantaloupes, most likely marketed from the Rocky Ford growing region of Colorado.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports laboratory testing by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment identified Listeria monocytogenes bacteria on cantaloupe collected from grocery stores and from an ill person’s home. Product traceback information from Colorado State officials indicated these cantaloupes were harvested in the Rocky Ford region. FDA is working closely with CDC, the firms involved, and public health authorities in states where illnesses occurred to determine the exact source of contamination.

Kent Lusk, a fifth-generation cantaloupe farmer from Rocky Ford, told USA Today, "This is really silly. You can get Listeria any place. I eat those melons every day."

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar said it might not be the cantaloupes, but a contaminated truck or other source. He said no recalls have been issued, but several Colorado grocery chains pulled their supplies as a precaution.

Rocky Ford cantaloupes are famous throughout the country, drawing travelers to roadside stands. Piles of the coveted melons are featured on postcards. W.C. Fields reportedly said bald guys have "a head shaped like a Rocky Ford cantaloupe," and Lucile Ball had the melons delivered to her dressing room.

Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, a food and biology professor at CSU, told The Pueblo Chieftain, "Listeria occurs naturally everywhere, but this is the first time we’ve ever seen an outbreak of foodborne illness in cantaloupe."

Guelph-grad Larry (left, pretty much as shown) probably meant to say an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe because there have been lots of outbreaks on cantaloupe (see the table at

"My gut hunch is that when all this over, we’re going to find something has changed in the conditions because listeria is common in the soil but this time, it’s apparently migrated into melons."