Rocky Ford reflects, looks ahead - The Packer

Rocky Ford reflects, looks ahead

11/11/2011 08:35:00 AM
Andy Nelson

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. 
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.

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Ben Mark    
USA  |  November, 11, 2011 at 02:13 PM

It's always a problem with stolen identities. Jensen is so far away from the Rocky Ford area and the growing conditions. For marketing reasons someone else had the idea to use the name from an area where never was a problem before. I would like to learn why an independent auditor sees the Listerias or other pathogens walking across the floor and not a hired auditor when he shows up once a year?! Really what’s the difference? It just proves again how useless this certification business is. It will not work for the retailers to hide behind a certificate anymore.

food safety rep    
Canada  |  November, 14, 2011 at 08:49 AM

I can't speak to the "stolen identities" concept, but I can offer my opinion on the second half of your coment, Ben. As we all know, bacteria cannot be seen with the eye alone. Instead, what we as food safety personnel need to do is to scout for and recognize practices and situations whereby the conditions can be created to harbour and/or grow a bacterial population. I say "recognize" with some gravity; unless the person in charge of food safety has an understanding of the way bacteria can live and grow, he or she cannot possibly recognize all the situations that put a plant at risk. In this instance, the FDA has suggested a delivery truck may have brought the contamination to the plant, and that standing water may have harboured and spread it. If, on the day the third party auditor was working there, the truck was absent and the water not pooling under equipment, how could the auditor possibly know that these conditions had been present at any other time? It may be argued that an auditor should ask whether these risk factors exist at other times, but I feel like the responsibility lies with the company for not employing someone with the appropriate scientific background or training to understand the risks when present at any given time, or for ignoring that person if the risks were brought forward. In my plant, I used to get complaints when I insisted that standing water be cleaned up right away. Not anymore. My only regret is that it's taken such a horrendous and tragic incident for my own staff to take my advice seriously.

Nick Naranja    
Florida  |  November, 15, 2011 at 01:19 PM

The best way that I see for food safety auditing is for the consumer to be the one that funds it. You could have a program where 1 cent per fruit or vegetable sold is used to pay for random audits of suppliers. Random audits are the only way you can get a true picture of what is going on at an operation. The current system allows suppliers to prepare for an audit and hide or fix things that would throw them out of compliance. A penny per ear paid by the consumer of sweet corn would have generated $15 million for random audits. For cantaloupes you would have generated approximately $6 million for random audits. There could have been 2000 random audits of canteloupe operations last year funded by a simple 1 cent per canteloupe fee. At that level of inspection, I feel we could have caught what was happening.

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