Drive into the small southeastern Colorado community of Rocky Ford and it’s clear the very character of the town is tied to cantaloupe.
A sign on the highway welcomes visitors to the “Sweet Melon Capital” and gas station placards show support for the high school mascot, a meloneer.
Two years ago this identity was threatened by the worst food-borne illness outbreak in decades.
A cantaloupe farm in Holly about 90 miles from Rocky Ford, was responsible. The farm’s packing facility sent cantaloupe infected with listeria, a pathogen known for its high mortality rate, across the country.
All told after the 2011 outbreak, 33 people died and nearly 150 people were sickened.
Since that time, melon growers in the region have been trying to repair their image and keep an outbreak from happening again.
Farmer Michael Hirakata has led the charge.
He owns one of two major packing facilities in town. Hirakata was just in the planning stages of a new building when news started pouring in about the listeria outbreak.
Suddenly, he had access to food safety researchers from around the country, ready and willing to give input on his facility. He also had to learn from the melon disaster.
“We were in a pretty unique situation where we could actually ask industry experts their advice on how to build a cantaloupe packing facility,” Hirakata said. “Whereas before we probably would’ve just done what we thought was right. We had a unique opportunity last year.”
The building sits dormant during the growing season, but by late summer several dozen employees will bring it to life, washing and packing this year’s Rocky Ford melon crop.
“It will look like an anthill. It’s organized chaos,” Hirakata said as he pointed to a large, empty water tank in his brightly lit packing shed.
Plastic rollers snake across the basin, with spray nozzles positioned above. His setup is brand new.
Before making these upgrades, Hirakata washed the cantaloupes with recycled water, a practice that brings higher risk of contamination.
Now, fresh water hits the melon rind each time.
After they’ve been dried and cooled, each cantaloupe is labeled with a sticker and a bar code. When scanned it tells you what date the product was packed and where it was packed.
If consumers want to go even further into the computer system, with some clicks and keystrokes Hirakata can determine from which field a particular cantaloupe was plucked.
These changes were in the works in the months and years leading up to the 2011 listeria outbreak, but Colorado State University crop specialist Mike Bartolo said the crisis galvanized a group of farmers unsure how to proceed.
“We didn’t know what would happen to the Rocky Ford name,” Bartolo said. “These guys have relied for over a hundred years on that reputation of the Rocky Ford cantaloupe.”
In the months after the outbreak, Bartolo helped the growers form a trade group, called the Rocky Ford Growers Association, and establish new food safety guidelines, which many growers and the two packing facilities adopted.
He brought in specialists to consult with cantaloupe farmers and packers. Before harvest last year, the group rolled out a new branding campaign and hired a public relations director.
“This was a lot deeper than a business decision,” Bartolo said. “This was really part of their culture and their community and so they really stepped it up a notch to address what they needed to do.”
Still, problems persist in the cantaloupe industry. Even with the added scrutiny in the wake of the 2011 outbreak, two other farms distributed infected melons in the past year — one in Indiana, the other in North Carolina.
All the bad press caught up with melon growers nationwide. Cantaloupe consumption dropped 13 percent last year to its lowest point in 24 years.
Colorado State University food microbiologist Larry Goodridge said he sees common threads among these mass outbreaks. For one, many packing facilities that process melons weren’t constructed with food safety in mind. Conveyors and wash bins are often equipped with rollers and poles made of foam, which can’t be easily cleaned. Washing procedures at some facilities deviate from guidelines. Water tends to be easiest way to transfer bacteria into the flesh and rind of the melon.
“So when you put all of that together we have this problem,” Goodridge said. “I think we’ll have to come up with ways to modify the packing houses without it costing a lot of money so that it’s realistic to do.”
Back at Hirakata’s farm in Rocky Ford, this year’s crop went into the ground during recent weeks.
His new washing system won’t be up and running until late July when the first cantaloupes are harvested.
His new upgrades were expensive, but worth it.
“It needed to be done and it’s about time it’s been done,” Hirakata said. “It’s a hard change, but we’re working at it.”
In direct response to the recent outbreaks, federal food safety inspectors are visiting cantaloupe farms in 15 states this year. Hirakata said he’s likely on the short list of farms to visit and he’s more than ready to give inspectors a tour.
Luke Runyon, based at KUNC in Greeley, Colo., reports for Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration of KUNC and other public media stations in the Midwest. Harvest covers issues related to food and food production. For more information, go to harvestpublicmedia.org. ❖