(UPDATED COVERAGE, July 16) Based on consumers’ reactions, Friday the 13th was a lucky day for members of the Rocky Ford Growers Association.
The first trademarked Rocky Ford Cantaloupe shipped to retailers July 13, almost a year after the beginning of a listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms. That outbreak killed 32 people and sickened at least another 146 in 28 states.
Michael Hirakata, head of sales for Hirakata Farms and chairman of the association said July 16 that most retailers who received shipments sold out the first day.
"All I've got in my cooler right now is cold air," Hirakata said.
Hirakata said he isn't ready to start thinking about next season yet, but if consumer enthusiasm holds he expects more acres to be back in production next year.
“The response has been incredible. We’ve been out at retailers this morning and people are excited,” Diane Mulligan, a spokeswoman for the growers’ association, said July 13. “There are 30,000 pounds shipping today to the Front Range of Colorado.”
Mulligan said she saw retail prices of 69 cents per pound for cantaloupe, including the Rocky Fords. She said there won’t be nationwide distribution of the trademarked cantaloupes this year, mainly because growers only planted about 30% of the area that they did last year.
Assistant produce manager Chris Garbuno said the King Soopers store on West Northern Avenue in Pueblo, Colo., hadn’t received its shipment of Rocky Fords as of 10 a.m. July 13, but customers were looking forward to it.
“We’ve had people asking for them all morning,” Garbuno said. “We expect the shipment anytime.”
Garbuno said the Rocky Ford Cantaloupe would be priced the same as the store’s other cantaloupe at 69 cents per pound.
Hirakata said he was seeing wholesale prices July 13 of $17-20 per box for 9s and 12s. He said that’s at least $3 more than last year’s prices and he believes the higher prices will hold through this season.
“We got started a bit earlier than planned because the heat came on. We didn’t think we would be shipping until July 20,” Hirakata said, adding that higher daytime temperatures had resulted in sweeter melons with brix counts of 14.5-16.
Hirakata estimates the association’s growers will ship about 180,000 cartons this season, with about 10 melons per carton, depending on size.
Area growers formed the association in 2011 in response to the impact the Jensen Farms outbreak had on the sales of cantaloupe from their region. Jensen's growing operation was about 90 miles from the Rocky Ford region.
“The biggest challenge was the short amount of time we had to get everything done,” Hirakata said.
The association researched food safety techniques and Hirakata Farms spent $800,000 on a new packing shed with a LeafTrack traceability system. All association members are required to use the packing shed to help ensure food safety, according to the group’s website.
The LeafTrack system not only provides traceability from seed to consumer, Mulligan said, but it also uses temperature sensing RFID tags to track the temperature of the cantaloupe during distribution.
Hirakata said the association members are responsible for their own distribution and sales. Of the growers in the specific region allowed to use the Rocky Ford trademark on their fruit, all but one are in the association.
“There is one grower who we just haven’t been able to get into contact with,” Hirakata said.
A complete list of the association's grower members is available on the group's website: rockyfordgrowersassociation.com.
According to Hirakata and the association website, the Rocky Ford growing region is defined as Otero County and the part of Crowley County that is south of the Colorado Canal. To label cantaloupe as Rocky Ford, growers must be a member of this association and produce melons within the growing region.
All cantaloupe from association growers that is sent to wholesalers and retailers will carry stickers with the group’s logo so consumers can easily identify true Rocky Ford melons, Hirakata said.
The Food and Drug Administration said last year that melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation’s packinghouse. The FDA concluded that dirty water on a floor and hard-to-clean equipment probably key elements in the listeria contamination because tests of the fields were negative.
The Rocky Ford association growers now pay field workers by the hour, rather than by the number of melons picked, to help improve and encourage their attention to food safety.
The association also adopted stringent food safety protocols that its growers are required to follow. Those procedures are outlined on the website.
Clarification: New information provided to The Packer indicates that only cantaloupe destined for wholesalers and retailers is required to go through the Hirakata packing shed. Association growers who sell their own melons or send them to farmers markets or roadside stands are not required by the association to use the shed or the LeafTrack system.