- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

DENVER — The residents of Rocky Ford, Colo., want to make one thing clear: The “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe” that touched off a national listeria outbreak, the deadliest U.S. food-borne outbreak in a decade, wasn’t grown in Rocky Ford.

Rocky Ford Cantaloupe is produced by Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., near the Kansas border. The actual town of Rocky Ford is nearly 100 miles west of that farm.

Farmer Greg Smith, a Rocky Ford native who runs a small melon operation on his 100 acres, is none too pleased with what he sees as the hijacking and besmirching of the Rocky Ford name.

“They took our name because it sells cantaloupe to Wal-Mart,” said Mr. Smith, who’s been farming in Rocky Ford for 24 years. “It’s a shock to a lot of people that they’ve done that, and it’s ticked off a lot of the people that I deal with.”

In the agriculture business, Rocky Ford is to cantaloupe what Seattle is to coffee. Mike Bartolo, vegetable crop specialist at the Colorado State University extension facility in the Arkansas Valley, calls Rocky Ford “an iconic name in the melon industry.”

Today, however, that name might as well be mud. The Jensen Farms cantaloupes that so far have sickened more than 100 people in 20 states and killed 18 of them also have delivered a body blow to Rocky Ford’s reputation for top-notch melon and its small but scrappy farming culture.

Cantaloupe accounts for $8 million of Colorado’s $20 billion agricultural industry, according to Christi Lightcap, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “It’s an important part of our industry, but it’s still small compared to, say, the beef industry,” she said.

In Rocky Ford, however, cantaloupe is the reason for the community’s existence. More than 100 years ago, farmers discovered that cantaloupe grown in the Rocky Ford area was sweeter than cantaloupe grown elsewhere, thanks to the areas unique weather-altitude combination.

“This part of the country has the highest night-and-day temperature swings of anywhere in the country, which helps accumulate sucrose in the melon,” Mr. Bartolo said. “It can’t be duplicated anywhere else.”

The town of 4,000 was built around the melon industry. Even the mascot at Rocky Ford High School is a melon, albeit a muscle-bound version in red shorts. The school’s nickname? The Meloneers.

Jensen Farms uses the Rocky Ford name because it grows its melons with Rocky Ford seeds, which are sold and can be grown anywhere, though locals say it’s not the same.

“You can grow Rocky Ford cantaloupe in China, but it wouldn’t be the same,” Rocky Ford city manager John Lyons said.

The food-poisoning outbreak has forced the local growers to consider branding or otherwise patenting their product in order to safeguard their good name.

“The community is trying to figure out how to protect itself in the future,” Mr. Lyons said. “The whole concept of being a Rocky Ford cantaloupe has to be reconsidered. You have to be able to distinguish between being a cantaloupe grown with a Rocky Ford seed and a cantaloupe grown in Rocky Ford.”

The listeria bacteria claimed its latest victim Saturday, an elderly woman from East Baton Rouge, La. The woman had eaten cantaloupe two or three weeks earlier, but her family did not know which state it came from, according to Louisiana’s state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard.

Hers is the first death linked to the infected cantaloupe in Louisiana. Jensen Farms had added Louisiana to its list of recall list for cantaloupes shipped between July 10 and Sept. 10, according to state officials.

Jensen Farms, which has been hit with several lawsuits by the victims of the food poisoning and their families, issued a voluntary nationwide recall in September. The Jensens have said they do not know why the cantaloupe became infected, and a Food and Drug Administration investigation so far has proved inconclusive.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar recently issued a message to consumers reminding them of the region’s longstanding reputation for high-quality cantaloupe.

“There will undoubtedly be an impact on our cantaloupe industry but it is too early to have specifics,” said Mr. Salazar. “This case has already had tragic impacts to those involved but we are fortunate that Colorado is at the tail end of the cantaloupe season and most of the crop has been consumed — and consumed safely.”

Farmers in Rocky Ford, now wrapping up work on their pumpkin crops, have held at least one meeting to discuss how to mitigate the damage to their reputation. The hope is that they can set the record straight and restore the community’s good name before next summer’s cantaloupe season.

“People still come in and say, ‘I’m not worried about your cantaloupe, I know that wasn’t you,’ and ‘How do those guys get away with this?’” Mr. Smith said. “There’s a fair amount of people who understand. But we won’t know about the impact until we see what happens next year.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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