Colorado’s prized cantaloupe growers have banded together to overhaul their food safety system ever since a listeria outbreak linked to contaminated cantaloupes from one Colorado farm killed 30 people nearly a year ago.
According to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, of the total land used to grow cantaloupe last year, only one-third is being used this year to grow the melons, thanks to a steep drop off in demand after the listeria outbreak. But things are starting to look up, thanks to concerted efforts by cantaloupe farmers to improve safety measures and restore consumer confidence in their produce.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the outbreak last fall sickened at least 146 people in 28 states in addition to causing the deaths of 30 people. CDC investigators linked the contaminated fruit to Jensen Farms in eastern Colorado.
An investigation found that a safety compliance company advised Jensen Farms to buy and incorporate used potato washing and drying machinery for cleaning their cantaloupe – a method that replaced the company’s system of cleaning the fruit in recirculating chlorinated water with a single pass under a stream of water.
The farm owners thought they were improving safety when they made the modification, not realizing the hard-to-clean potato washer was not suitable for washing produce that is intended to be eaten raw.
According to the Associated Press, Jensen Farms has filed for bankruptcy and isn’t growing melons this year, but other cantaloupe farmers in the region have joined forces to trademark their “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes, which have a characteristic sweetness brought about by the region’s sunny, hot days and cool nights. They have also invested $800,000 in safety upgrades to ensure the cantaloupes that leave their farms are free of potentially deadly bacteria.
The cantaloupe farmers hired a full-time manager to monitor their harvesting processes for safety. The farmers also decided to start paying melon pickers by the hour instead of by quantity of melons picked. They centralized packing operations in a newly constructed facility where all the Rocky Ford cantaloupes are washed with soap and chlorine oxide before being rinsed with well water and tested for bacteria. The melons will then be cooled to prevent condensation and packed with tracking codes that specify their origin, which consumers can scan with smartphones.
A number of people harmed by the listeria outbreak last year have filed lawsuits against Jensen Farms on behalf of themselves or family members who died after eating the contaminated cantaloupe. The lawsuits are still pending, but could be settled sometime this fall, according to the Associated Press.