Colorado cantaloupe farmers fear outbreak fallout

DENVER (AP) — Colorado cantaloupe farmers fear it will be a while before people feel safe eating Rocky Ford melons again because of a deadly listeria outbreak linked to one farm in the state.

The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday the melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation's packing house, which was using second-hand equipment. Melons in the field tested negative.

The report was released after the close of melon season in Rocky Ford, a region about 130 miles southeast of Denver, which is known for its sweet-tasting melons. Farmers there are now busy with the corn harvest.

Eric Hanagan, a farmer in the Rocky Ford region, fears cantaloupe sales will drop next year and plans to plant about 50 percent less, replacing it with a lower-income crop like corn. Still, he said he wasn't angry at Jensen Farms.

Hanagan didn't think the farm was trying to cut corners and said buying used equipment from other farms is common in agriculture. He said he sold most of his cantaloupe this year at farm stands and farmers' markets and sent a small number off site to be packed.

"We're all in this together," Hanagan said of farmers. "You don't do it to make money. You do it because of the lifestyle. It's just what you love to do."

Glenn Hirakata of the town of Rocky Ford, whose crops include wheat, corn, pumpkins, soybeans, cantaloupe and watermelon, said he's concerned the outbreak could hurt the market for cantaloupes next year. He said he wants to learn more about what went wrong at Jensen Farms to prevent anything like it from happening again.

There's no standard practice for picking and packing cantaloupe in Colorado.

State Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar said some packers simply pick and box the melons right in the field. Jensen Farms, meanwhile, had its own packing plant to clean and cull the crop because it was selling to supermarkets, he said.

"They were trying to do the right thing and it just kind of backfired on them," Salazar said.

With the lessons learned from the outbreak, Salazar said his department is going to work with producers to come up with the best practices for packing melons. However, his department has no authority to enforce whatever those standards turn out to be.

A new federal food safety law will require producers like Jensen Farms to submit detailed food safety plans to the FDA. The agency also will have to do more inspections of facilities like the packing plant.

Jensen Farms' owner didn't immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

FDA officials said Wednesday they had never inspected Jensen Farms.

Rocky Ford farmers have been irked that the region's reputation has suffered even though Jensen Farms is about a 90-minute drive from the region. However, the farm marketed its cantaloupes as Rocky Ford cantaloupes, prompting an overall warning from state health officials about Rocky Ford melons in general. The name has no legal protection to prevent farmers outside the region from using it.

Health officials later narrowed the source of the outbreak to Jensen Farms alone.

But even cantaloupe growers in Arizona and California, the nation's top two producers, have been hurt this fall as stores removed cantaloupes from their shelves.

Western Growers, the trade group representing growers there, said Wednesday it has worked for over 20 years to establish practices to prevent such an outbreak.

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