Rocky Ford fervor fuels rebound effort

03/07/2012 02:56:00 PM
Andy Nelson

Andy Nelson, Markets EditorTalk to John Salazar, and you won’t have to wait long to hear him praise Rocky Ford cantaloupes.

In the past, Colorado’s agricultural commissioner has told me about traveling to far-flung corners of the country and world, only to be surprised by people who rave about the famous Rocky Ford melon.

I talked to Salazar again recently, and this was his memorable line of the day: “There is no cantaloupe that tastes as good as a Rocky Ford cantaloupe.”

That might strike some as hubris, considering that a 2011 listeria outbreak traced to a Colorado cantaloupe grower-shipper claimed the lives of 32 people and sickened at least 146 people in 28 states. (And those numbers could continue to grow.)

For Salazar and the growers he and his staff have been advocating aggressively for since September, when news of the outbreak first came out, there’s no time to waste, and no reason to hide under a rock.

For starters, Rocky Ford growers have gone blue in the face trying to convince the industry and the public that Jensen Farms isn’t even in Rocky Ford proper. Not even close.

Whether they can win that PR battle and restore their good name via that route remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Salazar and the region’s growers are moving full speed ahead on an action plan for the 2012 season. One aide told me it’s been Salazar’s top priority this winter.

And a busy winter it’s been. Salazar and other department officials have met with growers repeatedly. They’ve been in talks with Colorado State University officials on revamped food safety protocols.

They’ve talked with Safeway and other retail customers, Salazar said.

The department will conduct a survey to gauge consumers’ attitudes toward Rocky Ford melons in the wake of the outbreak.

But it hasn’t been all talk. As of the end of February, the cantaloupe industry had already agreed to have third-party audits, conducted by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, in place for the upcoming season, Salazar told me.

They don’t plan on stopping there.

“We will establish a protocol we can be proud of, and take every possible step we can to prevent another outbreak,” Salazar said. 

“In times of trouble, sometimes you see a silver lining.”

“Silver lining” might strike some as jarring, given the severe toll of the listeria outbreak.

But you could also read it — and Salazar’s unabashed love of Rocky Ford melons in general — as a sign of the kind of optimism it will take to get the state’s cantaloupe industry through this storm, and to ensure there are plenty of those melons on consumers’ plates for years to come.

anelson@thepacker.com

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