The Colorado cantaloupe crop will be smaller this year after 2011’s listeria outbreak, but growers in the Rocky Ford area are joining forces to make the most of the season by assuring customers their melons are safe.
“Smaller crops mean we will have to manage this year’s crop better to get the best product and best yields we can out of them,” farmer Michael Hirakata said.
The focus on safety begins with the Rocky Ford Growers Association, which Hirakata started. The group trademarked “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe” and will put its logo on melons grown by members.
“There are about 20 members,” Hirakata said. “The focus going forward is taking the proper steps in providing the best quality and being safe in our preharvest, postharvest and handling procedures.”
Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., the source of last year’s outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said sickened 146 people in 28 states and resulted in 30 deaths, did not plant a crop this year.
An FDA inspection of Jensen Farms found that melons likely were contaminated at a packing facility. The agency found that the facility floor allowed water to pool and was not easily cleaned. Packing equipment also was not easily cleaned or sanitized, and washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe was used for other commodities. The facility did not have a precooling procedure for melons coming in from the field before they were put into cold storage.
Safety protocols implemented by the Rocky Ford Growers Association call for all members, regardless of the number of acres they plant, to be audited twice yearly by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, based on USDA guidelines. One audit will be announced and one unannounced, Hirakata said.
Hirakata Farms hired a food-safety manager to ensure USDA requirements are met. Because the farm is the association’s packer, it built a state-of-the-art packing shed. High-output coolers reduce condensation on melons coming in from the field. Melons are cleaned with a microbial soap shower, and trailers that haul cantaloupe do not haul animals or other produce.
“Our biggest challenge is getting the word out that Rocky Ford cantaloupes have had a 125-year spotless record,” Hirakata said. “We are doing our best to give the consumer a great-tasting, sweet, juicy and safe product. We are all fourth- to sixth-generation farmers who feed cantaloupe to all of our family members and all of our friends.”
He said the listeria outbreak left him with uncertainty and tough decisions to make. “I was very worried it could affect the livelihoods of the growers, as well as my own,” he said. “We were all unsure moving forward.”