In Nebraska, where I grew up, we envied our neighbor to the southwest not only for its mountains, but also for its summer peaches and, yes, its Rocky Ford cantaloupes.
Rocky Ford was kind of like our version of “locally grown” back then. But as Colorado’s agricultural commissioner, John Salazar, reminded me recently, the Rocky Ford cantaloupe is known around the world.
That’s not politician boilerplate.
Salazar recounted a conversation he had with an Iranian. The man, upon hearing Salazar was from Colorado, starting talking excitedly about Rocky Ford cantaloupes.
Melon diplomacy, anyone?
Of course, the listeria outbreak linked to Colorado cantaloupe grower-shipper Jensen Farms has made abundantly and sadly clear the reach of the Rocky Ford cantaloupe.
As of Nov. 9, people had been sickened in more than half of the states in the country — 28. And if it comes out that someone in another country fell ill after eating a Jensen cantaloupe, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise.
Unfortunately, as of early November, we still can’t talk about the outbreak in the past tense.
Because listeria has such a long incubation period — up to two months — and because reporting is often delayed, the death and illness toll will likely continue to rise, even two months after Jensen Farms issued its recall.
Nevertheless, growers, government officials, buyers and others have begun to reckon the damage and to plan for 2012.
More will likely come out about what exactly was to blame for the outbreak. The Food and Drug Administration found several possible smoking guns in its inspection of the Jensen facility after the outbreak.
But it can’t be overlooked that these judgments were made in hindsight. Jensen, after all, did earn stellar marks at the beginning of its season from third-party certifier PrimusLabs.
Rocky Ford growers also are quick to point out that what works in California doesn’t necessarily work in Colorado.
Responding to West Coast criticism that Colorado growers wash their cantaloupes, one grower told me it rained a lot more in Colorado than in California.
Unless you want to pack muddy cantaloupes, you have to wash them.
Jensen, along with its competitors in Colorado and in other cantaloupe growing regions, also is at the disadvantage — along with just about everybody else in the produce industry — of acting in a regulatory vacuum.
The FDA was forced to pay a visit to Jensen after the fact only because it never made a visit to Jensen before the fact.
Until industries police themselves, as the leafy greens industry does, or until all measures of the Food Safety Modernization Act are funded in their entirety, reducing the number of outbreaks will be difficult.
Packing sheds may need to be tested mid-season, not just at the beginning of the season.
And independent auditors — not ones hired by the company being audited — could become the industry norm.
Colorado’s growers and the state’s department of agriculture are committed to making sure there’s no repeat of 2011. In generations of cantaloupe production in Rocky Ford, a listeria outbreak had never occurred until this year.
Despite budget crises on the federal and state levels, let’s hope that government and industry can find a joint public/private solution to prevent it from ever happening again.
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